Louisville therapists are embedding with protesters to help them deal with trauma

Jamie McAtee often visited YaYa’s BBQ, where he met friends and family to feast on fried chicken and collard greens, the aroma of cornbread hanging thick in the air.

The small restaurant in West Louisville was owned by his older brother, David McAtee, known as “the BBQ man,” who always seemed to be in the kitchen with a warm smile and a hot meal.

“Whether you were in a difficult situation or a police officer, he made sure you were fed, and he fed you for free,” McAtee said recently. “He will always be remembered for that.”

David, 53, was shot and killed in June outside the restaurant after the National Guard and Louisville police were called to disperse a crowd violating a city curfewimposed during protests against the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

David McAtee’s death deepened the anguish of a city already convulsed by trauma and grief over the March killing of Taylor, 26, a Black medical technician who was shot in her apartment by police executing a search warrant.

Like Jamie McAtee, many Black residents and activists are coping with the loss of loved ones, grappling with emotional encounters at protests and dealing with disappointment and anger as their demands for police accountability and racial justice seemingly go unanswered.

“I became numb, and I couldn’t move for hours,” McAtee said when he learned his brother had been killed.

McAtee received mental health help through Therapists for Protester Wellness, a network of volunteer providers in Louisville that is embedding therapists in marches, and offering free or discounted services to residents and demonstrators.

The therapists are primarily in Jefferson Square Park, the site of protests over Taylor’s death since late May.

“We’re here to remind people to take care of themselves during this movement,” said Millicent Cahoon, a therapist and founder of Therapists for Protester Wellness. “It’s caused a lot of strain in Black Americans’ lives, especially those who are on the front lines everyday.”

The group formed in late June after many protesters witnessed the fatal shooting of Louisville photographer Tyler Gerth, 27, in Jefferson Square Park, Cahoon said. A man who attended the protest was later charged with murder.

The network is made up of around 100 mental health professionals of all disciplines whose members are visible at protests, wearing black T-shirts with Therapists for Protester Wellness written on them. Around five volunteers attend nightly demonstrations, while others are available through a 24-hour hotline or over social media.

“People are unable to sleep, and they feel anxious and even depressed,” Cahoon said. “Being on the ground and talking to people has allowed them (therapists) to understand what they’re going through.”

One activist, Delaney Haley, said that while protesting can be empowering, she used the group’s services after being hit with pepper balls and tear gas by police and feeling on edge.

“It’s like there’s no escape — I am either at a protest, waiting for it to happen all over again, or I am at home replaying the scene in my head,” she said. “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that it’s really rough at times.”

Darian Ferguson, a mental health counselor who focuses on trauma, said that being met by police force or confrontational counterprotesters can trigger anger and confusion. Ferguson typically guides people through deep-breathing exercises and talks with them about the incidents they’ve faced.

“We can’t prevent this trauma from happening, but we are here to help them process it and make sure they’re OK,” said Ferguson, who regularly works with three clients active at demonstrations.

Cheryl Ades, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, said some protesters don’t have a strong support system at home because they’ve sacrificed their personal lives for the cause or severed relationships with family members over the racial justice movement.

“We want them to know that we have their backs,” said Ades, who provides one-on-one sessions free to community members. “Access to counseling and therapy has helped sustain this movement, because once you express and release those feelings, you know that you can keep going.”

“We don’t want them to burn out, because this is a marathon, not a race,” Ades added.

Activists show no signs of slowing down as they continue to hold nightly marches and demand systematic change. But in a city roiling with emotional pain, residents and volunteers agree that mental health must be a priority as they work to chart a path forward.

Three months after losing his brother, McAtee sought professional help from Therapists for Protester Wellness as he continues to advocate for racial justice in Louisville.

“Men are taught not to express their feelings, but talking to someone is one of the greatest things I have done for myself,” he said, “and it has allowed me to show up for David McAtee, Breonna Taylor and all of our fallen soldiers.”