Trauma can be the result of any number of incidents that cause physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual harm. Whether a person has been in a car wreck, experienced war, or been a victim of abuse, oftentimes they will need adequate support systems as well as the time and space away from the event to process and heal. However, there are some types of trauma that people can’t get away from with space and time. Racial trauma occurs on a daily basis in both big and small ways that can culminate in a lifetime of undue stress.
This Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Mental Health Month, we spoke with Jefferson Center clinicians, Allyson Drayton, NCC, LPC, and Mayra Granados, LPC, to better understand the impact and long term implications of racial trauma, as well as explore some of the unique challenges faced by the BIPOC community.
What is Racial Trauma?
To accurately define racial trauma, it’s important to first define what it is not. Both Drayton and Granados agree that racial trauma is not the same thing as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of one key defining feature.
PTSD is a mental health issue that people can develop after experiencing a life-threatening event. On the other hand, Drayton defines racial trauma as the “physiological and psychological result of chronic racism, microaggressions, and racial events.”
The difference there is that PTSD is often triggered by a single event, or a string of related events, whereas racial trauma is a near-constant experience, perpetuated by daily incidences of racial bias, ethnic discrimination, and hate crimes. Some of these situations might be life-threatening and others might be simple comments made unintentionally, but the blows dealt by those offhand comments build up over time.
“Racial trauma is different from PTSD because it’s not about questioning whether or not something is racist or discriminatory,” said Drayton. “It’s about focusing on emotional distress, physiological changes, and the toll that these moments take on a person over time.”
Who Can Be Affected by Racial Trauma?
Although anyone can experience racial trauma, Granados points to the power systems at play, particularly in the United States, which offer higher levels of power and privilege to people who are white in the social construct of race. Drayton agrees, stating that “any ethnically, racially, culturally marginalized group can experience racial trauma, although it does factor more with people who are identified as belonging to these social constructs.”
In just the past year alone, our country has seen a significant uptick in racially and ethnically motivated crimes. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are up 164% in 16 of our largest cities after the outbreak of COVID-19. Authorities have noted that antisemitic attacks in the U.S. have skyrocketed after the violence in Gaza and Isreal. And in California alone, anti-Black bias has led to a 31% increase in hate crimes.
While it is important to note that anyone can be the target of a racially or ethnically motivated crime, it is also important to look to the facts to determine which groups are most at risk. According to the United States Department of Justice, race, ethnicity, ancestry, or bias accounted for 57.6% of all reported single-bias incidents in 2019, and 52.5% of the offenders were white. The increase, frequency, and routine nature of these incidents can lead to some serious mental health injuries.
Symptoms of Racial Trauma
The symptoms of racial trauma can be largely sorted into three categories: psychological, biological, and social.
Psychological: these include the mental impacts of chronic stress, resulting in behavioral issues like anxiety, depression, irritability, hostility, and avoidant behavior.
Biological: routine exposure to triggering events like microaggressions, discrimination, and violence can lead to negative health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, increased risk of stroke, lower birth weights, high blood pressure, and even higher rates of asthma.
Social: systemic racism can cause people to feel trapped which can lead to reduced attendance or dropping out of school, substance use, and involvement in gang activity.
According to Drayton, racial trauma is very dynamic.
“It isn’t just about saying ‘I was called a slur,’ it’s being reminded that you don’t have the same access as everyone else,” she says. “It’s going to college and seeing all of the halls and dorms are named after white men. It’s anything that reminds you that your race is a stimulus that can be traumatizing over time. The social impacts can manifest as behaviors and using coping skills that might be ineffective, like getting involved with gangs or using drugs and alcohol. These feed into stereotypes and stigma, because not understanding that ineffective coping is a symptom of racial trauma.”
What are the Long Term Effects of Racial Trauma?
For Granados, the long term impacts of racial trauma are just as serious as the immediate symptoms.
“There are plenty of systemic barriers that lead POC and low income families to live less healthy lives over time” Granados said. “They have to deal with long term implications, like lack of housing, food scarcity, inadequate health access, and poor education that get passed down through generations.”
This generational aspect of racial trauma is also a concern for Drayton, who emphasizes that many families in the BIPOC community are simply struggling to survive as opposed to figuring out how to thrive. As Drayton says, “in these cases, parents who are chronically stressed, traumatized, and triggered can face more significant barriers when it comes to being involved and able to advocate for their children. And in other cases, many of these parents have to rely on their children to meet basic needs, such as communicating at doctor’s appointments.
According to Granados, “Most of the time, when families for whom English is not their first language go to the doctor, the children are translating for their parents. Language barriers lead to people not fully understanding what is being communicated about their health at times. With that can come a sense of shame for not understanding and a lack of empowerment, leaving people to feel like they can’t ask questions or ask for more.”
In the end, Drayton asserts that the most profound effect of racial trauma is death.
“The mental, physical, and emotional health issues associated with racial trauma really do accumulate over time,” she said. “We know that Black teens suicide is incredibly high and even though they are not attempting suicide as often, they are using more lethal means which often equates to desperation and pain. How is this impacting future generations?”
Racial Trauma and Complications with the Mental Health Profession
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to addressing racial trauma. And the research behind identifying and treating racial trauma is still developing since it is a relatively new topic of discussion within the past couple of decades. On top of a lack of funding for the evidence-based research needed to fuel this area of exploration, there’s a larger problem within the mental health community regarding the gatekeeping of information and the process of determining which treatment practices are considered valid.
Both Drayton and Granados lament the whitewashing of their fields of expertise and how it limits the reach of mental health support. In 2015, 86% of all psychologists in the U.S. workforce were white. While Drayton and Granados have concerns about the ability of such a homogenous group of clinicians to treat such a diverse range of clients, they also have concerns about the ways in which the vast majority of clinicians — regardless of race — are taught to treat mental health conditions.
The western model of mental health treatment is held as the gold standard in our country, but is it always the best way to connect with clients and meet their needs? Granados thinks not.
“A lot of my clients are very Catholic and very superstitious,” she said. “In these cases, some of the standard treatment methods that ask people to rate themselves on a scale and start taking medication can scare people away, then they don’t get any mental health help.”
Drayton emphasizes that the more traditional or spiritual methods of healing have not simply left common practices, they were intentionally pushed out.
“The westernization of mental health treatment as the preferred method means that there’s been a longstanding history of demonizing and stigmatizing traditional approaches to health and wellness. The othering of traditional perspectives of wellness is a major barrier to current mental health care and is a limitation for clients because it’s a limitation of how therapists are trained.”
For the roughly 15% of clinicians who are not white, the burden of addressing racial trauma for clients who identify with the BIPOC community can be a heavy burden to bear.
Granados says that clients want to process the traumatic events that have happened to them, but what effect does that have on the clinicians? “How do you sit with a client and help them process that experience without getting vicarious trauma? This can make clinicians feel helpless, too.”
Drayton agrees, and adds, “there are times that I feel like a fraud. There’s not much you can say to this client and you know not much is going to change. It’s a double-edged sword. You’re having to do the work for yourself in order to do the work with the client.”
This is a common sentiment for clinicians and other BIPOC members of the mental health community. The burden of trying to ensure that clients have adequate access to appropriate mental health care can frequently lead to burnout because it is often a self-led, grassroots task.
How Can You Address Racial Trauma?
So, what do Drayton and Granados recommend for healing? It’s complicated.
Self-care is touted as a cure-all for many mental health issues, and while self-care can be a great tool, it must have a place within a larger toolbox when it comes to addressing racial trauma. When it comes to racial trauma, the issue is that it is pervasive and perpetual. People have to deal with racially or ethnically motivated bias and discrimination on a daily basis and it won’t suddenly end tomorrow.
“There are some things that you can’t change and you have to deal with them,” Drayton says. “We see a lot of millennial and younger people with learned helplessness. Oftentimes self-care is not enough. Time and space away from triggers and trauma help, but it’s not the same with racial trauma because it never goes away.”
While it might be daunting to realize that the triggers of racial trauma are likely to remain through our lifetimes, that doesn’t mean people are helpless. Drayton and Granados urge clients to find places where they feel like they have power and influence, then exercising that power and influence in helpful ways can be a huge step toward reclaiming a sense of empowerment.
“It can take some work to identify what those areas are, but the question becomes how do you battle helplessness, not how do you battle racism as a whole. It’s much more manageable.” Drayton says.
What Can Allies Do to Help?
Luckily, racial trauma does not have to be tackled alone. Whether you have experienced racial trauma or not, you can be an ally to someone who has and help to take some of the weight off their shoulders. For Drayton and Granados, being an ally means being willing to have difficult conversations and make major changes.
Drayton jokes that the first step to being a true ally is admitting that you have a problem. A series of studies done by the Pew Research Center in 2019 showed that “about six-in-ten blacks or more – but fewer than half of whites – say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in hiring, pay and promotions; when applying for a loan or mortgage; in stores or restaurants; when voting in elections; and when seeking medical treatment. In each of these realms, whites tend to say blacks and whites are treated about equally; very small shares say whites are treated less fairly than blacks.” Here, there is a clear divide between what is perceived by people within BIPOC communities and people within white communities.
Drayton says it’s all about allies acknowledging the threats that BIPOC people face, then working to understand how you might play a role in those threats.
“Have conversations outside of your echo chamber. Read from people you don’t agree with. Understand what constitutes racial trauma and be able to identify things as racial trauma.”
A key feature of being an ally is lightening the load of others. This means not burdening BIPOC people with excess questions or expectations that they should educate you on their race, heritage, cultural practices, or any other aspect of their identity or experience. Granados calls this doing the work on the sidelines. Educate yourself on your own time, but be present and vocal when your support is required. “It’s too late to be politically correct. It’s too late to be neutral. Allies should be allies out loud rather than behind closed doors or just in safe spaces.”
For Drayton, this means voicing your support in a variety of arenas. Difficult conversations with families, friends, and coworkers are important and valid, as is your political involvement and where you choose to spend your money.
“What legislation are you supporting?” she said. “Are you supporting politicians who support reparations, bills that offer more opportunities to BIPOC people, better access to mental health care? What are you doing with your money? Who are you donating to? What funds are you putting your money into? How are you using your power and your influence to support BIPOC communities?”
It all comes down to how you use your power and privilege to support and uplift others.
Resources for BIPOC People and Allies
- Association for Black Psychologists
- American Counseling Association
- The Element of Discovery Therapist of Color Collaborative
- The Center for African American Health
- Servicios de La Raza
- It Takes a Village
- Brother Jeff
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Latinx Grief
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- The Trevor Project
- BlackLine Crisis Line
- The Steve Fund
- Asian Pacific Development Center Denver
- Denver Indian Family Resource Center
- The Filipino-American Community of Colorado
- Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition
- Elements of White Middle-Class Dominant Culture
- National Association for Black Journalists
- Denver Indian Center, Inc.
- Native American Rights Fund
- Latino Community Foundation of Colorado
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