Implicit Bias and Mental Health Part III: Influencing the education and justice system

Left: A Black male juvenile at Harrison County juvenile treatment center. Right: The hands of a Black male juvenile at Harris County juvenile treatment center are displayed in a photo as part of an exhibit, Juvenile In Justice. – AP file photos



The Dallas Examiner


During the Implicit Bias and Mental Health “For the Culture” presentation by Dr. Ryan Sutton, director of Heman Sweatt Center for Black Male and Professor of Education at the University of Texas at Austin held Feb. 25, he talked about the impact that mental health had on the educational and justice systems.

“We see disproportionate exclusionary practices in school,” Sutton said. “What do I mean by that? We see Black kids being expelled and suspended at a higher rate than their White counterparts.”

He discussed a study conducted by researcher Walter Giliam in 2016. The study used t-shirts that were given an identity, a scenario and connected to an eye detector machine. The teachers were told to detect the bad behavior in the classroom.

“What they found was as the teachers’ gaze moved throughout the classroom, it landed on Black students more often and it stayed on Black students longer, which lets them know that they were conditioned to think, ‘If I am going to find negative behavior or find bad behavior, this is where I am going to find it,’” Sutton explained. “Back in the day, they used to say, ‘If you look for something, you are going to find it.’ We are seeing even in the educational system, if it is being looked for because our teachers, administration is being conditioned implicitly – implicit bias through the media, social and political context, through narratives that are being sold – it is going to manifest an adverse impact, negative impact within these settings.”

The same scenario occurs within the criminal justice system, according to Sutton.

“I work for D.C. Superior Courts,” he said. “I worked in D.C. jail, prison. Worked a lot in forensic environments, we see the overrepresentation of Black individuals at each phase of the justice system. At arrest, at being not diverted but being sent through the trial; at trial, being found guilty, being escalated, being charged as an adult. At each stage there is an overrepresentation of Black individuals.

Sutton argued that there is an underrepresentation of Black individuals in diversionary courts.

“Overrepresentation in criminal courts and underrepresentation in mental health courts. Overrepresentation in criminal court and underrepresentation in drug court,” he said. “But when you think about how you get into mental health court there is a lot of room for bias and attribution. You have to take a plea guilty; the prosecution has to put the offer on the table and not the defense. But there are things that prevent the increase of Black people in these courts because of how their behavior is being seen. If someone has criminal behavior it is seen as a dub it is seen as just a bad kid, it is seen as a gangster or were just seen as someone who needs help.


Influences on implicit bias

“Turn on the news. Read the newspaper. Read the articles,” Sutton said as he talked about the different reporting for different races – especially during a mental health crisis and including that quality mental health services are needed in the Black community. For a Black person, it is presumed bad behavior, criminal behavior or they were in a bad neighborhood.

This can also be seen in policing. Officers disproportionately make contact with African Americans on a national level, according to Sutton.

“At every stage just like the criminal justice system, being pulled over, having contact, every stage of that there is overrepresentation of Blacks,” he said. “So when we see implicit bias and attribution, it has actions in other areas and segments of our everyday life. It is not just in one area. We are all susceptible to it.

So when we talk about implicit bias, we are talking about your biases that aren’t explicit, these aren’t what you vocalize and say. This isn’t what you are cognitively thinking or believing. But unconsciously, what are the beliefs that you hold? What usually arises from explicit teachings you get over a year. What have you been taught? What have you been told? What are some things that you weren’t necessarily taught, but seeing it over and over again you definitely picked up that message? What are your experiences that start shaping your biases, your own personal worldview? I’m Black, I’m a male, you put all these together and you are going to start forming a worldview.”

Exposure also plays a part in creating implicit biases in everyone’s live, according to Sutton.

Implicit bias in and of itself is not a horrible thing” he said. “We all have it and it is not going anywhere. The issue arises when we don’t try to protect ourselves or take the time to unpack it to the best of our ability. When we don’t slow down. When our positions of power are impacted by implicit biases that have negative outcomes on other people, it becomes an issue. Everybody has implicit bias but depending on the power you have, your implicit bias has chances for more adverse outcomes or impacts. So it is deeper.”

Sutton then gave an example of a 2017 study that looked at where police lethal force was used in communities.

“What they did was they gave an implicit bias test to the community,” he said. “Not the police officer, don’t miss that. They didn’t give it to the police officer. They gave it to the community from which the police officers patrol in and what they found was that they were able to identify the regions of this country that uses the highest level of police force based on the biases of the community. I think that is deep. The difference in your position of power and privilege might be what really makes your implicit bias worse compared to someone who doesn’t have the privilege or power. The study found that this wasn’t just in police officers, it was in everybody, even at the national level.”

He also conducted a study with the Fort Worth Independent School District.

“I pulled up an implicit association test which tells you if you have a preference for Black people over White people or a preference for males or females,” he said. “A Black lady did a test and it showed she had a slight preference for White people, which shocked her. What I had to explain to her was that we have all been ingrained in the same culture. The dominant narratives, what’s being sold out there impacts us. And we have to be aware of how and why and how we combat that. So even if you say, ‘I don’t have to worry about that or I am Black,’ ‘That’s not me,’ the more we are going to be susceptible to it.”

Sutton said implicit bias is most dangerous when you are stressed, overwhelmed and burned out, your implicit bias is going to run its highest. But it’s also dangerous when you are tired and fatigued.

“That links up when you are operating at autopilot, you can be on autopilot in your everyday actions with people to the point where your autopilot beliefs and perceptions you start responding to more than the person standing in front of you,” he said. “You respond more to the image of schizophrenia in the ad than you do to the person struggling with schizophrenia right in front of you. So you prep yourself to go in war and that’s when we are about to meet. Your implicit bias takes control because you don’t have the cognitive or emotional bandwidth to slow down to unpack and ask the questions and to respond in an appropriate manner. So implicit bias runs highest then and when we start utilizing more assumptions than questions and when you have ingroup and outgroup attributions there.


Attributional error

“Attribution error says when we see behaviors from people who are part of our outgroup, we tend to credit their failures to internal factors,” he said. “And their successes to external factors. But if they are part of our ingroup, we’ll credit their successes to who they are and their failures to everything around them. What our research shows that is if it is your friend or somebody in your inner circle, you are going to attribute their successes to them, they are a great person, they are a good person, they are smart they study hard, they have all these attributes but when it goes bad, man don’t worry about them, they all messed up.”

A research study was done by Katy and Earmark in 2014 that found that White people were actually more inclined to support harsher sentencing when they were made aware of racial gap in incarceration. When White people were made aware that Black people were incarcerated at a higher rate than White people, they thought Black people must be bad and need harsher sentencing. But if the sentencing was even, they were open to explanations for each situation.


Combating biases

Sutton had four levels of recommendations to combat the biases.

“Academic and research often guides to policy,” he said. “Until we get more diverse research and researchers, we might have the research that perpetuates the same narrative over and over again because you might not have a broad perspective of what you bring to the table. And we are underrepresented, Black people are underrepresented at these levels.

“When you look at the academy and when you look at the research, we don’t have the numbers there. So our story isn’t being told. Until we have more people who could write some of these books and come up with research with a certain perspective and experience, we might be lacking in certain areas.”

Another recommendation is the reallocation of research. He questioned how the National Institute of Mental Health has used its million-dollar grants. He indicated that the funding should be used to explore ways to increase access to services, resources and steps needed to prevent adverse outcomes, as well as rehabilitative services.

Sutton also looked at negative social determinants of health that exist within minority communities.

“Are we really having the funding to allocate the social determinants that impact our mental health and impact our biases and impact our attributional errors and impact the dominant narrative that is being told out of our community,” he said. “Institutional, what are we doing to reduce stigma reduction? How are we revealing our operational rations and the adverse impact that our department may be having that our institution may be having. Even if we don’t mean to. One thing about these disparate outcomes is in racism its not judged in the same way that you judge a murder. A murder, it doesn’t matter if your intent was there or not, your murdered somebody. But over here with racism, we always say I didn’t mean to. That wasn’t my intent, but you’re still murdering people over here, people are struggling. So we need to be able to hold up and hold people accountable on the adverse impacts that we are having regardless of what our intention is.”

The third thing Sutton recommended is education and training within the institutions so that people are aware or equipped.

“And not equipped to handle the whole thing, but equipped to refer, equipped to recognize and so forth,” Sutton said.

For the fourth thing, Sutton suggested mental health literacy.

“We need psychoeducation within the community, we need access to preventative services, we need these things at the tips of our fingers and not running through a lot of obstacles and bureaucratic red tape and through a lot of systems trying to navigate and sort this thing out,” he said.


Protecting mental health

Sutton suggested protecting one’s mental health and the mental health of those family members, friends and neighbors.

“Number one is self-care and preventive practices,” he said. “Is your self-care intentional, is it purposeful, is it specific and is it mindful. There is a thin line between self-care and procrastination. But if you are intentional, and you are specific, and you are purposeful and you are mindful then you can talk back and say no I am supposed to be doing what I am doing for this time because I know in the long game my burn out will be down, my stigma will be down, my fatigue will be down and I won’t be operating implicitly from a bias basis, and I will be better altogether.

Sutton says the number two suggestion is to look at functionality over diagnosis.

“Too often we will say I am not depressed, don’t speak that over my life, I’m not anxious, I don’t have PTSD,” he said. “But we really don’t know what those words mean in clinical terms so look at functionality, how do you recognize there is change and function in your behavior or change in functioning in a friend or family member behavior from an emotional level, a cognitive level and behavioral level. It is not your job to diagnose, it is not your job to figure it out, it is just your job to be able to recognize these signs and say I need to get help. When you recognize your behavior is different you could go over frequency, duration and intensity and ask yourself these changes that I am seeing how often is it happening, how long does it last and how strong is its impact on my relationships, on my work and on my interactions with my children or my relationships with my neighbors, and that will give you better gage of saying okay I need to reach out.”

Thirdly, he suggests getting connected.

“Go to to find a psychologist in your area or will give you a list of psychologists, social workers, licensed professional counselors to get help. But also look at the community agencies within your community and don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations from people that you do know.”



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