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Has violence and racism caused PTSD in Blacks?

African-Americans live in a constant state of trauma brought on by the high level of violence in their neighborhoods, police-involved shootings of unarmed Black citizens and the many forms and levels of racism experienced on daily basis.

So with research to back it up, it’s no wonder Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a real issue in the Black community and could very well be attributed to ongoing Black-on-Black violence.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines PTSD as a psychiatric disorder that can occur in individuals who experience or witness a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, sexual assault or other violent personal assault.

Those with PTSD, according to the APA, continue to have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended and may also relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares.

They can also feel sadness, fear and/or anger; and may feel detached or estranged from other people and may be easily startled and have strong negative reactions to loud noise or an accidental touch.

Jules Harrell

Dr. Jules P. Harrell, professor of psychology at Howard University and a researcher in the field of the effects of stress and racism on the health of African Americans, said Tuesday PTSD is a very real thing.

“It’s both a physical and physiological event that has permanent long-term effects,” Professor Harrell said. “All of the evidence and research is there. I’m not sure why the policy makers are ignoring it. We’re working to bring together all the disciplines who can address this such as the Black Caucus, departments of health, churches, schools etc., to call for policy changes to address this issue. This is something that wasn’t seen 30 to 40 years ago and it’s a very serious issue that has manifested.”

 

Dr. Kim Dulaney, professor of African-American Studies at Chicago State University, received training on PTSD after symptoms of traumatic stress were being demonstrated by some of her students.

“As a scholar and educator, it was me recognizing broken people,” Dulaney said. “I just finished training for PTSD. I needed to know what that was so that I could be better prepared to help my students and I needed to know how to deal with compassion fatigue from hearing all the traumatic stories.”

When asked to describe the impact of the high level of racism and violence in the Black community that African-Americans deal with on a daily basis, Dr. Dulaney said, “It’s living in a state of constant trauma. You generally see PTSD in people returning home from war. In the Black community, it feels like war on your Black body just because someone fears the stereotypes they have of Black people in their imagination. Trauma is different from stress. Trauma is an emotional wound that can cause physical changes in a person. The impact of trauma can be substantial and can have lasting damage to psychological development in youth.”

For instance, Dulaney is referring to the kind of trauma a teenage Black male experienced after being slapped in the face recently and berated by a racist South Carolina White woman who added insult to injury with racial slurs, as she went on a tirade at the mere sight of him at a neighborhood swimming pool.  Or the trauma experienced by the people, especially the young people, who witness or hear about the senseless violence, such as the shooting incident where Erin Carey, 17, a Chicago teenager was shot June 20 and presumed dead at the scene in a West Side neighborhood.

Kim Dulaney

First responders covered Carey with a sheet. However, those standing nearby which very likely included children, reportedly, shouted to first responders that Carey was still alive and breathing. According to a WLS/CNN news report, journalists on the scene said Carey was covered for at least 15 minutes before paramedics began CPR.

“If you see or experience something extreme, or even having to live with figuring out which way to walk through a neighborhood so you don’t get shot, it’s not normal but we’ve normalized it because of the constant trauma,” Professor Dulaney said.

Shootings in Chicago are so common and expected that local news media chronicle and count the shootings. A Chicago Sun-Times database lists the names of every victim who was killed by another person within city limits in 2018. Information on the database site states it will be updated daily with more names added to the list.

To date, 244 people have been shot and killed and 1,284 have been shot and wounded in Chicago, according to the site heyjackass.com, which compiles statistics from several Chicago media outlets.

Things are so bad that three days without a homicide makes news headlines and is counted as something to celebrate.

Police Shootings

Couple all of that with police-involved shootings of unarmed Black men around the nation day in and day out. Exposure to that ongoing information for long stretches of time creates a breeding ground for PTSD, the experts say.

Relying on information from the Boston University School of Public Health and pointing out the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile that sparked national outrage, a Feb. 2018 Newsweek article, states that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than White people, and further states that with a greater degree of structural racism tend to have higher racial disparities in fatal police shootings of unarmed victims.

A 2017 HuffPost article states the growing body of evidence suggests Black Americans may experience a specific type of PTS, called race-based traumatic stress induced by repeatedly witnessing traumatic instances in person and via social media.

According to Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans, in 2018 race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, all contribute to the socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans.

Racism continues to have an impact on the mental health of African Americans. Negative stereotypes and attitudes of rejection continue to occur with measurable, adverse consequences, according to the nonprofit organization.

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed Black men are nearly three times as likely to be killed by “legal intervention” than White men. American Indians or Alaska Natives are also nearly three times as likely and Hispanic men are nearly twice as likely, the study suggests.

“It affirms that this disparity exists,” Dr. James Buehler, clinical professor of health management and policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who authored the study, said in a 2016 CNN news article. “My study is a reminder that there are, indeed, substantial disparities in the rates of “legal intervention” deaths, and that ongoing attention to the underlying reasons for this disparity is warranted.”

African-Americans and African-American parents are already aware they are not treated fairly by the police. It’s widely known that African-American parents provide their children with hopefully, lifesaving instructions on how to behave should they ever encounter the police. Living this way is highly traumatic for the parents and the youth.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health cites the following statistics:

  • Adult African-Americansare 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult Whites.
  • Adult African-Americansliving below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty.
  • Adult African-Americansare more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult Whites.
  • And while African Americansare less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, African Americans teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than White teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).

 

 

Black Students

Students of color also face harsher punishments in school than their White peers, which lead to a higher number of youth of color being incarcerated and coming into contact with the juvenile-justice system and at an earlier age.

When it comes to children, information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that all children may experience very stressful events that affect how they think and feel and that most of the time, children recover quickly and well. However, children who experience severe stress, such as from an injury, from the death or threatened death of a close family member or friend, or from violence, will be affected long-term.

More than 60 kids 15 and younger, as of July 3, have been shot in Chicago this year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

It’s common for Chicago parents to not allow their children to play outside for fear of their children being caught in gang crossfire.

When children develop long-term symptoms (longer than one month) from this kind of trauma which can interfere with their relationships and activities, they may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the CDC.

Treatment

The first step to treatment for PTSD for children and adults is talking with a healthcare provider to arrange an evaluation.

Because children who have experienced traumatic stress may seem restless, fidgety, or have trouble paying attention, traumatic stress symptoms can be confused with symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Some of the issues surrounding treatment are that few mental health professionals have the levels of cultural sensitivity needed to help African- Americans with PTSD and need to be trained to understand the historical and social context of this trauma, according to the HuffPost article.

There’s also a high level of stigma attached to seeking help for mental illnesses in the Black community, which can also impede getting help.

The prolonged emotional effects of experiencing and even witnessing racist treatment can also lead to  hypertension and even life expectancy.

As for the racially charged times African-Americans are experiencing, Professor Dulaney said we’ve experienced these times before.

“It’s just that now we have social media bringing it to the forefront,” Dulaney added. “In 1866 after slavery, we had the Ku Klux Klan creating fear. Every time it seems Blacks start to push forward, they push back with racism. In general when Barack Obama was elected, there was a new, blatant and bold empowered resurgence of racism that wasn’t accepted prior to Obama being elected. It’s not the majority of Whites, but the ones who are committed to defending their idea of White power.”

As for Black-on-Black crime, the counting continues…and the trauma increases.

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