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Beginning to Understand Racial Trauma & Black Mental Health

Author’s Note: Before reading, I believe it’s important that I identify myself as a white voice. That said, I am unable to truly understand the feelings and emotions of the black community. This article is written not to try to express the feelings of the black community, but to share information and resources. I worked with various black friends and consulted sources written by POC authors. A list of said sources will be credited and hyperlinked below.

2020 has been a year of tragedies. A year of mayhem. A year of trauma. Comedian and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah recently spoke on coronavirus, Ahmaud Arbery, Amy Cooper, and George Floyd. He called these incidents “dominoes” –with each one tipping after the other to lead us to our current state of race protests and rioting across America and the world at large. Though this may feel like it all came to a head in the last week, egregious incidents of racial injustice are nothing new.

Racial trauma, or race-based stress, refers to “POCs reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.” Racial trauma is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but racial trauma “is unique in that it involves ongoing individual and collective injuries due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress.” Additionally, countless studies have shown that mental illness and overall attitudes can be passed down through generations. Black Americans have faced centuries of racial trauma and are now facing an environment that allows for it all to come to a boiling point. Racial trauma is only enhanced in this time of coronavirus and social media, as people are home and have access to a constant stream of new information. As Trevor Noah said, “Try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Police in America are looting black bodies.”

Cortisol is a hormone, often referred to as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol acts as an “alarm system in your body that fuels your instinctual fight & flight responses in times of danger, threat, & crisis.” Racial trauma and constant racial injustices lead black Americans to be “on high alert all the time.” With this, cortisol will constantly be circulating in the body. Heightened levels of cortisol may lead to further health issues, such as:

  1. Headaches

  2. Fatigue

  3. Heart disease

  4. Diabetes

  5. Sleep problems

  6. Increased hypervigilance

  7. Depression

  8. Anxiety

  9. Other PTSD-like symptoms

Additionally, black Americans face extreme racial inequality in terms of healthcare and higher rates of poverty, both of which contribute to this vicious cycle of injustice and mental damage. It’s impossible for a non-black person to understand this psychological impact, but before you judge a black person’s words, actions, or response to the recent tragedies, think about the burden of racial trauma. There has been a mental health crisis in America, which disproportionately affects black Americans. This moment in history will only perpetuate such. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Photo Credit: NY Times. “Serena Williams raises her fist in victory at Wimbledon.” (Reuters / Paul Childs)

Other Sources:

  1. “We Can’t Undermine the Effects of Racial Trauma”

  2. Facing Racial Trauma – Again and Again – as a Black Woman With Anxiety”

  3. “Lifetime Exposure to Traumatic and Other Stressful Life Events and Hair Cortisol in a Multi-Racial/Ethnic Sample of Pregnant Women”

  4. “Can Racism Cause PTSD? Implications for DSM-5″

  5. “The Effects of Race-related Stress on Cortisol Reactivity in the Laboratory”

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