The Mental and Physical Impact of Racial Trauma

April is National Minority Mental Health Month.

A black woman begins to suffer from depression after regularly hearing jokes about her ethnicity at work. Another woman feels anxious when she drives too close to a patrol car. Another woman stops going for regular walks, fearful that her race could make her a target for violence.

The three scenarios can be considered examples of racial trauma — the emotional response resulting from negative experiences that occur because of a person’s race. Racial or race-based trauma can have a significant impact on mental, emotional, and physical health, especially if that person faces ongoing exposure to discrimination.

Amy Beck, Ph.D.health psychologist, can identify with her patients who express fears about “driving while black” and potentially interact with authorities if they get caught for a minor traffic violation.

“Who else has to think about not going over the speed limit because of what could happen if you get pulled over?” -Beck asked. “When you think about chronic stress, you get these examples of continually having to think about what could happen to you because of your race or ethnicity. Racial trauma is a huge stressor that can be ongoing because you will always be black or a person of color. “That will never change.”

Read: Black women have many mental health risks. For me, June 16 is a day of healing. >>

Racial discrimination as a cause of trauma has gained more international attention in recent years, especially after the murder of George Floyd prompted a national reckoning on Treatment of people of color by the police.. Attacks on Asian women during the early days of the pandemic raised awareness about Hate crimes against the Asian communityas Asians were attacked by others who blamed them for Covid simply because the virus started in China.

TO study in 2019 found that between 50% and 75% of Black, Hispanic and Asian people in the US reported experiencing racial discrimination. Other study about the racial trauma cited investigation which found that people who have experienced “complex trauma”, which is repeated exposure to ongoing traumatic events, have higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, sleep problems, substance abuse and behavioral disorders, among other mental health problems. Physical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, digestive problems, obesity, and cardiovascular problems have also been linked to complex trauma. Researchers argue that racial trauma is a complex trauma because it is continuous and relentless.

“Trauma affects the body, mind and spirit,” Beck said. “We know there is evidence that trauma can change the neurological development of the brain depending on its intensity and when the trauma was experienced. “Racial trauma can absolutely affect the way brains develop and the way they are wired, which can have long-term effects.”

What is racial trauma?

Racial trauma, or race-based trauma, can result from experiencing discrimination that falls into the following general categories.

  • Interpersonal discrimination It is a direct action carried out by one person towards another. This is the category that tends to have the most public visibility and includes actions often classified as hate crimes.
  • Systemic/institutional discrimination It consists of inequalities embedded in an organization or culture that lead to worse outcomes for those affected. Practices like Red line (denying credit to people based on where they live) or attending educational institutions that are historically underfunded are examples of this type of discrimination.
  • Intrapersonal discrimination It is when a person absorbs negative experiences and messages related to their race and internalizes them. This can affect self-esteem and self-image because those affected may feel less qualified or not good enough for something positive because of their race.

In addition to the negative effects on health, racial trauma can also contribute to damaged relationships with others and socioeconomic consequencessuch as difficulty maintaining a job, unemployment and poverty.

“When you put all of these things together, it takes a lot of work to develop a resilient spirit that can fight against these external pressures and limit the absorption of this trauma into your existence,” Beck said.

How to Find Help for Racial Trauma

Research on effective treatments for racial trauma is limited, but positive results have been seen in
Mindfulness programs that center people of color.including RiSE (Resilience, Stress and Ethnicity), a program designed to help Black women facing cardiovascular risks develop coping skills related to race-related stress and trauma. One study of psychedelic use found improvements in symptoms of racial trauma, traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression in people of color.

Mental health therapy and treatment are beneficial, but it is important to find a mental health provider who understands the impact of racial discrimination and how it can trigger trauma. Beck said addressing racial trauma must take a holistic approach that addresses mental, emotional and physical issues.

Read: Closing the mental health gap for women of color >>

“There’s been a lot of recognition that who you are affects not only your healthcare experience, but also your health in the world, and that needs to be incorporated into your healthcare treatment,” Beck said. “It is difficult for even the most privileged and non-vulnerable populations to receive comprehensive health care, so it is especially more difficult for many people of color. When you think about the fact that most people of color are underrepresented in all disciplines of healthcare, it can be difficult to find someone trained in this.”

However, access to qualified mental health providers has increased in other ways. Telehealth has expanded care options, as has PSYPACT, a multi-state compact that allows approved professionals to offer therapy across state lines in 39 (as of now) states, with more planned to join. Women in participating states can search for providers in online directories of specialists from a particular racial or ethnic group or through a general Internet search.

“In therapy, there are specific treatments designed to help women manage and improve after negative trauma experiences, but treatment can also include elements such as nutrition and exercise,” she said. “There is interesting data analyzing the impact of the gut on mental health. “All those things work together.”

The most important thing, Beck said, is to become your own mental health advocate. When you meet with a provider, ask questions and be honest about your experiences. If you feel like you are not being listened to, let the provider know and consider finding another specialist who is a better fit.

“You deserve to feel good and be healthy,” Beck said. “Don’t normalize feeling less than your best, fullest self. If you don’t feel that way, reach out because there are people who really want to help you achieve it.”

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