In this second installment dedicated to the intersectionality of Black History Month and Mental Health, I felt it was important to shed light on the subject of racial trauma. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) experiences’ with racism often include workplace discrimination, hate crimes, or the accumulation of many small occurrences, such as everyday discrimination and microaggressions. Yet, what we don’t often talk about is its origins, and the ways in which it continues to affect our mental health, both individually and collectively.
What is Racial Trauma?
Racial Trauma is a form of race-based stress related to BIPOC individuals, and refers to their reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.
Origins of Perceived Mental Illness
In May 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, a Louisiana physician, published a paper entitled, “Report On The Diseases and Physical Peculiarities Of The Negro race.” He claimed that Blacks who fled slavery suffered from drapetomania, a disease he believed justified enslavement as a therapeutic necessity.
Drapetomania in his words: “Drapetomania is from draptise. A runaway slave is mania mad or crazy. It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptoms be absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers. In noticing a disease that, therefore, is hitherto classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause in most cases that induces the Negro to run away from service is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves are located on the borders of a free state within a stone’s throw of abolitionists.”
Racial Trauma Symptoms
Although similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in symptoms such as hyper-vigilance to threat, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, suspiciousness, and somatic expressions such as headaches, heart palpitations, among others, racial trauma differs from PTSD in that it involves ongoing injuries due to the exposure (direct and/or vicarious) and re-exposure to race-based stress.
In addition to psychological and physical effects, racial trauma causes hidden wounds to individuals, groups, and communities.
Racial trauma occurs in a sociopolitical context and an ongoing basis.
Uncovering the Wound that is Racial Trauma
The breadth of the BIPOC experience — slavery, lynching, oppression, racism — has had a devastating impact on individuals’ mental health. Dr. Joy Degruy developed a theory which addresses the residual impacts of generations of slavery, in particular, known as P.T.S.S., or post-traumatic slave syndrome.
P.T.S.S. is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.
Healing from Racial Trauma
60% of Black Americans endorse at least one experience of racial discrimination in their lifetime, and findings suggest that the links between experiences of racial discrimination and negative health outcomes are stronger for Black Americans than for any other group. Being seen, heard, and knowing that you matter is essential not only to your existence but also your healing. The American Psychological Association urges those who are experiencing trauma in the aftermath of race-related stress to practice self-care. Connect with family, friends and other community support people, talk about your feelings and limit your exposure and that of your children to news media and viral videos. And as always, seek professional help from a licensed mental health professional if you need it.