Extreme Crowd Control Takes Its Toll on Mental Health


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Key Takeaways

  • Many protesters have been exposed to crowd control measures, some quite extreme.
  • Tear gas and other measures used by law enforcement can impact both mental and physical well-being.
  • In some situations, protesters may be at risk of developing PTSD.

For more than two weeks, hundreds of thousands of protestors have walked in solidarity following the death of George Floyd, amplifying the message “Black Lives Matter” and advocating against systemic racism. Though the majority of protests have been peaceful, some have turned chaotic, tense, and violent.

A photographer lost her eye after being shot by a rubber bullet. A young woman died two days after police deployed tear gas on her and surrounding protestors. A man experienced a brain injury after being pushed to the ground by a police officer.

Crowd Control Measures

Tear gas, smoke guns, pepper spray, and other methods are used by police officers and law enforcement to disperse protestors, provoke fear, enforce curfews, and ultimately control mass gatherings. Although crowd control weapons are considered “non-lethal” or “less-lethal,” they can be dangerous, deadly, and damaging to health.

Chemical weapons, such as chlorine, phosgene, and tear gas were first used in World War I. Although few soldiers were killed by these methods, the psychological damage and the exposure to chemical agents was a major public health concern.

“Soldiers on all sides felt that gas warfare was not a proper weapon and went beyond the bounds of humanity,” Gerard J. Fitzgerald, PhD, wrote in the American Journal of Public Health.

These chemical weapons were banned from war under the Geneva Protocol in 1925. Yet, tear gas found a new use: to control mass crowds. Tear gas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a “chemical compound that temporarily makes people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.” It is a frequently used riot-control agent (RCA), but it’s not the only one.

Throughout the George Floyd protests, which have spanned across every state, we’ve seen law enforcement use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, kettling, paintball guns, long-range acoustic devices (LRAD), smoke grenades, and other crowd control methods.

Peaceful Protests Turn Traumatic

The trauma of seeing police officers, who are meant to be protective figures, act with militarized behaviors is impacting people in similar ways to wartime, says Kira Hayes, MA, MFT, owner and mental health provider at Affirming Pathways Psychotherapy, LLC. She has been actively involved in the protests in Columbus, Ohio, working alongside the medics, supporting the protestors, and advocating for change.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, “The physical symptoms of chemical irritants often result in disorientation and agitation, which can lead to a state of fear, anxiety, and panic.” Hayes experienced pepper spray firsthand. The severity of these irritants is alarming, she explains. “There’s no time to process it.”

Protestors are experiencing the physical ramifications of crowd control, as well as the mental health implications. Panic attacks, for instance, can run alongside the physical pain of tear gas and can be very traumatic. 

“These experiences can be damaging for people for different reasons,” says Ashley Parks, MSW, LCSWA, clinical therapist at Bull City Psychotherapy. “A lot is happening very quickly, too quickly for our minds to be able to create a cohesive narrative, in addition to there being a real or perceived threat of serious injury.”

When dealing with a threat, Parks says we often flee, fight, or freeze. When crowd control methods are used in protests, the limbic system (which controls emotional responses) is directly impacted and these reflexes may be disrupted or blocked. This can easily cause trauma.

Kira Hayes, MA, MFT

You don’t need to experience tear gas to be traumatically impacted by it. Seeing it, hearing it, feeling it, even reading about it can be traumatizing or triggering.

— Kira Hayes, MA, MFT

Experts have warned that tear gas and other gas-related crowd control measures can exacerbate the risk of contracting COVID-19, but large scale protests and social movements have proven to have a positive impact on political change and protestors are continuing to gather despite the risks.

“This is a crisis. There are choices being made and choices being taken,” says Hayes. “The pandemic is playing a role in the protests, but it is falling secondary to the shared goals and the intentions behind the protesting.”

Thousands of individuals are returning day after day to carry signs, chant, and join their fellow Americans in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality, while advocating on behalf of the Black community.

Jon Elhai, PhD

If these protests go on for weeks or months, and if an individual has repeated exposure to tear gas, rubber bullets [and other methods of crowd control], longer-term PTSD could result.

— Jon Elhai, PhD

“People are in survival mode,” Hayes explains. “There is a rush of adrenaline, energy, and action.” However, PTSD symptoms are already presenting themselves in Hayes’ patients and she anticipates that next year we’ll see the mental health impacts on a much deeper level, especially as individuals begin to process the traumas they’ve experienced.

Protect Your Mental Health

To avoid these longer-term mental health implications, while continuing to confront potential traumas, individuals need to pay attention to their mental health and prioritize self-care.

Protestors should have an aftercare plan in place, says Parks. This can include meditation, sleep, preparing food, finding a comfortable place to rest, or connecting with others.

In addition to taking days of rest, connecting with social networks, and implementing various coping mechanisms, Hayes encourages individuals to allow the emotional responses from distress to happen rather than avoiding or minimizing them.

Even if you’re maintaining positive mental health care, you may still experience short- or long-term symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other mental health disorders. Pay attention to your body and to changes in your mood or behavior. 

According to Parks, some symptoms that could result from trauma include nightmares, the inability to sleep, changes in eating habits, difficulty concentrating, feelings of anger or hopelessness, difficult trusting others, exaggerated startle responses, and a shift in world view, among others.

Symptoms of amplified anxiety (such as panic attacks, a constant state of worry, or a buzzing energy) and depression (losing interest in daily activities or losing motivation) are also likely to occur in the months following these protests, says Hayes. Speaking with a mental health professional can help in identifying these symptoms.

“It’s a relay,” says Hayes. “Know your limits and listen to them.” As these protests continue, Hayes hopes that we can shine a light on the importance of mental health care and make mental health resources more accessible for all.

What This Means For You

The effects of extreme crowd control can take a serious toll on mental health. Taking care of your well-being is critical. Have a plan in place for what happens after a protest. Pay attention to how you are feeling, seek social support, and be sure to reach out to a mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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