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Ferguson is a Community in Distress, Not a Community at Unrest

By Paul Gionfriddo, President/CEO of Mental Health America

By now, everyone has heard the news from Ferguson, Missouri. An unarmed 18 year old named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. Michael Brown was black.

Until recently, Ferguson was a community best known for its proximity to St. Louis and its designation as a Playful City, USA.

But for the last two weeks, media reports have relentlessly referred to Ferguson as a community at unrest, and focused almost entirely on one angle – race relations.

But what the media have not acknowledged is this – Ferguson is actually a community in distress. People who live there are scared. They have lived with both the trauma of the shooting itself and the threat of violence for more than two weeks. And this kind of distress takes a toll.

We cannot ignore race in this story, because race does matter.

I have written in the past about people such as Anna Brown, Miriam Carey, and Allen Daniel Hicks, Sr., a mother, a dental hygienist, and a coach. They were all people of color. And none survived encounters with the police during times of crisis.

But what their stories had in common was the appearance of a connection to behavioral health matters (although this connection proved to be wrong in at least two, and perhaps all three, of these tragedies).

That wasn’t the case in Ferguson. There the story is as much about a community. And we should say it again. That community is in distress.

So let’s talk about what we should be doing for a community in distress.

We should be doing many of the same things we do for communities affected by other shootings, by hurricanes, or by tornadoes.

Community leaders should show up, not surrounded by military and police force, but as parents and friends to show solidarity with those living in the affected neighborhoods.

And here are some resources that they should be using to help – resources that are available in Ferguson and in communities around the country:

We can give people in affected neighborhoods access to relief services and mental health professionals to help them work through their feelings and concerns. Our Mental Health America – Eastern Missouri affiliate can help do that in Ferguson, and our MHA affiliates around the country can do it in their communities, too.

We can give them helplines to call. The National Disaster Distress Helpline, operated by MHA – New York City, is free, confidential, and available 24/7.

We can give them screening tools to monitor their mental health, such as the anxiety, depression and PTSD tools that thousands of people use anonymously on Mental Health America’s website every week. 

Our national partner, American Red Cross, offers free Psychological First Aid classes around the country to help people learn how to cope with the trauma from tragedies and disasters.

And we all can join together in our upcoming #B4Stage4 campaign – to remind policy and community leaders that mental illnesses should not be the only chronic conditions we wait till Stage 4 to acknowledge and treat (and then often only through incarceration).

It is time to put our resources into intervening in a positive and meaningful way at the earliest stages of disease and – in the case of Ferguson and so many communities that have been touched in similar ways – distress.


And yes we know that culture matters in the effective provision of mental health and wellness-directed services. We know that communities and people have rich help seeking behaviors and such resiliencies can often mask significant problems such as historical traumas which many feel have not entirely lost their explanatory power, even though policy makers tire of this often repeated reframe. If mental health is in fact fundamental to overall health, we must find ways to empower everyone. I am sure Clifford Beers would agree and this whole affair suggests that mental health is not only a neurobiological matter but also has social determinants that we continue to wrestle with at the level of trust and care among those who are charged with this responsibility.

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