Maintaining mental health during times of racial unrest
by Roger Whittler, LPC, Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program Clinician
Many members of The Missouri Bar, and the community at large, want to speak out regarding racial unrest in our communities but are not comfortable doing so.
So often, one person’s comment can lead to another and soon we are not sure what to say – or how to say it. Social media posts, emails, public statements and everyday conversations about race or race-related topics can lead to stereotypes and accusations in one form or another. Many occupations require sensitivity and competence in racial issues. The legal profession is one of those occupations, along with police, healthcare, education and many others. As individuals feel compelled to speak out, they may conclude that career obligations are not consistent with what they want to say publicly. For example, a prosecutor who works closely with police may find it difficult to express personal beliefs about a high-profile allegation of police misuse of force.
Although we all have personal opinions regarding racial unrest, our careers often dictate how we must behave; for example, in the practice of law in Missouri, Rule 4-8.4 states in part “the special importance of a lawyer's words or conduct, in representing a client, that manifest bias or prejudice or constitute harassment against others based upon race, sex, gender, gender identity, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, or marital status.” Sometimes what we feel compelled to say can conflict with the rules of conduct we previously agreed to comply with.
Clients who bring these kinds of issues to the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program are often conflicted and struggling with a sense of anxiety, uncertainty, unsettledness and frustration. Mental health researchers have described this situation as a racial moral dilemma. Basically, there's disconnect between the person’s self-concept, or what they profess to believe contrasted with what they demonstrate. The anxiety is provoked by irresolvable racial moral dilemmas that force one to choose between group loyalty and humanism, moral codes, laws, rule, etc. As lawyers, there can be several racial moral dilemmas occurring at the same time; a few examples are:
- As a parent, many times our children express views regarding racial unrest. Children notice what was previously taught by parents and quickly point out inconsistency when observed.
- As a spiritual person who worships and acknowledges certain beliefs but is unable to adhere to those beliefs in situations of race.
- As a community leader or public office holder with publicly stated positions on topics of race who feels uncomfortable expressing them now.
- As a solo attorney concerned that their livelihood could suffer if they were to express their attitudes and beliefs about race.
The anxiety provoked can be irresolvable. This lack of resolution causes a feeling of dissatisfaction and self-doubt. It can cause a person to ask themselves, “Am I who I say I am?” As a clinician, I believe these dilemmas can apply to everyone. Everyone does not experience a dilemma regarding their beliefs on race, but some do. Once the dilemma is resolved, a person feels calmer, more relaxed and more at ease with racial challenges.
Optimal mental health is congruence or compatibility with who we are, which means any racial dilemma is resolved. Carl Rogers described congruence as “a person’s ideal self, is consistent with their actual behavior.” As a clinician, I am not interested in getting a person to think one way or another; rather, I am interested in getting them to be themselves. When it comes to maintaining mental health during racial unrest, I make several recommendations:
- Conduct a careful self-examination of our beliefs and thoughts about race. What were we taught as a child, what do we know intellectually now, what do we want to learn and how much evidence do we have to support our current beliefs?
- Try to find sincere ways to be honest with ourselves and others, while not being offensive; try to avoid using stereotypes and invite respectful conversations about race.
- Examine our career obligations and expectations and how they are influenced by the race of co-workers, clients and the community.
- Talk with a trusted person about our beliefs and any concerns we have.
- Avoid moral rationalization or attempts to reinterpret or shift moral standards to make the unacceptable acceptable.
- Leaders should not impose personal values regarding race on employees unless those values are part of written policy or otherwise required in the workplace.
- Try to focus on positive relationships that exist among different racial groups and be optimistic that racial problems can be resolved.
If you have concerns or want to talk about anxiety due to racial unrest, the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program is here to listen. MOLAP services are free of charge for Missouri Bar members. For confidential assistance, call 1-800-688-7859.
Cross, William E. Jr., Shades of Black, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1991.
Helms, Janet, Racial Identity and its Impact in the Classroom, retrieved July 15, 2020: https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.
Missouri Supreme Court Rules, Rules of Professional Conduct, retrieved July 15, 2020: https://www.courts.mo.gov.