Racial Trauma Is a Public Health Emergency
What you may not know about Black mental health.
Posted June 1, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Today, I asked an African American client how she was doing in light of the ongoing hate crimes against Black people in this country, and she said: “It makes me feel disgusted… but mostly…unwanted.”
The word “unwanted” rang like bells in my ears. I was stuck. What do I say next? This was a unique moment in the therapy process where I found myself confronting an unwanted emotion I too harbored inside.
“Yeah…” I said…” I have felt the same.”
The recent and repeated incidents of police brutality in this country is a major public health problem and taking an arduous psychological toll on African American citizens everywhere.
There are staggering mental health consequences that form from these incidents; one namely being racial trauma. Racial trauma can result from one to innumerable experiences of racism such as workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can be the result of repeated occurrences, such as racial profiling and micro-aggression (Williams, 2019). There are even new developments in the literature that suggest that exposure to racial trauma both directly and indirectly, through media outlets, have implications for psychological health and well-being (Tynes, et al., 2019). The trauma may result in issues of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth—but it has remained largely invisible in its impact.
As an African American therapist, I often get calls from fellow African Americans specifically looking to work with a Black therapist/counselor. Most want to openly discuss their experiences with racism. They share narratives of being followed in stores to being undermined or ignored in their workplaces. I listen first, validate, and deeply empathize. These encounters produce lasting psychological effects including but not limited to: depression, anxiety, hypervigilance to threat, post-traumatic stress disorder, and can even contribute to the development of chronic diseases (Carter et al., 2017; Comas-Díaz et al., 2019; Franklin et al., 2006).
As stated by the president of the American Psychological Association, “We are living in a racism pandemic.”
Black people are not only enduring the cumulative effects of racism but of the country’s thousands of COVID-19 cases. They are the most likely group to die from COVID-19 symptoms compared to their White counterparts.
“It is traumatizing to be living through a global pandemic and living through the viciousness of racism at the same time.” —tweeted by Dr. Bernice King.
For those experiencing racial trauma in light of these tragedies, you may not hear this a lot but I see you, I value you, and I support you. Find ways to stay connected to trusted support systems. Seek professional help if you need to.
To learn more about racial trauma, please read here.
Carter, R. T., Lau, M. Y., Johnson, V., & Kirkinis, K. (2017). Racial discrimination and health outcomes among racial/ethnic minorities: A meta‐analytic review. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 45(4), 232-259.
Comas-Díaz, L., Hall, G. N., & Neville, H. A. (2019). Racial trauma: Theory, research, and healing: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist, 74(1), 1.
Franklin, A. J., Boyd-Franklin, N., & Kelly, S. (2006). Racism and invisibility: Race-related stress, emotional abuse and psychological trauma for people of color. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6(2-3), 9-30.