Part 2 on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Caused by Violence and Racism
In last week’s Defender, we looked at the impact Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may have on Blacks, particularly because of the increase of violence and racism in our communities. In today’s edition, we look at some of the things people can do to cope with PTSD and live healthy lives.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in individuals who experience or witness a traumatic event such as a terrorist act, war/combat, sexual assault or other violent personal assault, according to The American Psychiatric Association.
Individuals with PTSD continue to have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. Those with the disorder may also relive the event through flashbacks and/or nightmares and can experience a range of emotions from sadness, fear, anger, to detachment from other people. They may be easily startled and have strong negative reactions to loud noises or an accidental touch.
Following another weekend of Chicago gun violence where according to WGNTV.com, 33 were wounded and 6 killed, it stands to examine if PTSD is a given in a city like Chicago with such high levels of crime and violence and high-profile police-involved shootings. Professor Jules Harrell of Howard University response is, “I would expect PTSD would rage like an epidemic where a threat of homicide hangs over the heads of the residents of any neighborhood.”
Adding to the trauma of being trapped in a cycle of violence that includes police involved shootings of African-American males, Harrell, who conducts research on the impact of racism on African-Americans, referenced a study that shows African-Americans suffer clear, negative mental health effects when they live in and around cities where Black men have been killed by police.
“Those of us who study racism learn two things quickly, one is racism brings a range of stressful encounters to the lives of Black people and two, racism has an uncanny permanence across time and place,” Professor Harrell explained. “We know that human memory makes a rich, multilayered record of the stress we encounter. These memories have conscious and unconscious facets. Thus, one may have a single encounter with a toxic racist situation, but the psychological or physiological impact of that encounter may last for a lifetime. The concern of PTSD by those who study racism seems inevitable. It is for me. My studies have been of the effects of racist encounters and the recall of these events.”
Professor Harrell’s studies stress that when people view or recall episodes of racism, distinct changes in physiological activity are evident. “These (changes) differ across people, with more pronounced changes sometimes taking place in individuals who embrace the Western values like materialism and individualism,” he explained. “The studies have been replicated in a number of laboratories across the country.”
As for the impact of racism and the continued cycle of crime on children, Professor Harrell said to keep in mind that racism has interpersonal, institutional, and structural elements.
“These lead to conditions (such as lack of jobs, nurturing experiences, and educational opportunities) where crime is a common if not an acceptable way of life,” Harrell said. “The old saying is true, ‘people in Black communities are often over-policed but poorly protected.’
The sad irony is that often we celebrate the criminal individuals who might prosper materially under these conditions. This is similar to the situation during the enslavement period, where some criminal individuals chose to collude with rather than fight European invaders. We have to remember and tell the children that we are not natural born criminals nor were we natural born colluders. However, crime and collusion stemmed from conditions in our history and from present conditions.”
Treatment for PTSD
Danielle Buhuro, a local pastor and clinical pastoral education professional who trains chaplains, has done extensive work around helping Black people cope. She said she tells people who have experienced trauma that they need to do three things.
First, they need a psychological therapist, “not a pastor or a chaplain,” she explained. People need trained professional help. To find professional help, she encourages those with PTSD to visit phsychologytoday.com and use the search engine to find a doctor near them by zip code as well as by type of insurance they have. (Many insurance plans cover therapy.)
She also encourages individuals to participate in self-care activities, particularly mindfulness, which focuses on the current moment while acknowledging feelings. Another form of self-care is being selective with the social media consumed. While social media has been great in helping us uncover racist and unjust practices, like police shootings, Buhuro said it can be harmful to watch these videos over and over. “If you see a negative police brutality event, or another one around racism, etc., you can have a depressed mood when you start the day. You don’t want to start your day [that way.]”
Lastly, she also suggests people get involved civically with social service agencies that can help them fight racism. “Take that anger and channel it for something positive; be in contact with political officials, aldermen, house of representatives….we need to do more than just shut down the Dan Ryan; we need to figure out how to go to Springfield and D.C. and impact policy changes.”
Buhuro, whose book Spiritual Care In an Age of #BlackLives Matter: Examining the Spiritual and Prophetic Needs of African Americans In a Violent America, comes out this fall. Buhuro has established a website where people can get practical information to cope www.blackcarematters.com.
Self-care is at the center of coping with trauma. Tennille Power recently became certified as a yoga instructor and uses a specific trauma informed technique. She helps people become more cognizant about what they are doing to their bodies while experiencing trauma.
“One of the things African Americans must be cognizant of is what we put into our bodies. Physically, many of us are emotional eaters. We have trained our bodies to crave caffeine, fried foods and sweets to self soothe. We must recognize our relationship with food in order to make healthier choices. Two, we must be aware of what we watch on television, the radio, the internet and social media. There are too many negative stereotypes and narratives around our people. From “Reality TV” to the Gram [Instagram], we are bombarded constantly with another medium telling us how to think, dress, interface with others, be in relationship with partners and raise children. More often than not these images continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes of the angry Black woman/man, the overly specialized Black woman/man, the Jezebel…Aunt Jemima. We need to question everything we see, we eat, we hear, we touch through the lens of ‘Is this moving me toward my mission in life?’
Power continued, “Living in America is traumatic for African Americans on a daily basis. Having to watch violence inflicted upon us by police, medical institutions, educational institutions etc. Over the course of the time our ancestors were kidnapped and brought to this country, a country stolen from indigenous people, we are in constant trauma and vicarious trauma. African Americans MUST embrace mental health and self-care. We must remove the stigma behind mental health and get therapy. Your pastor may not be qualified, unless she or he has gone through professional mental health training. Self-care is seen as a luxury. It is a NECESSITY and looks different for everybody. My idea of self-care is NOT going to the spa and I can’t always get away on vacation. For me, it’s reading, being still, praying in a quiet chapel. For some it’s walking. For some it’s getting together with girlfriends. For others it can be binge watching Netflix and for others it’s yoga!
Professor Harrell stated that we have to operate on all levels, from the biological and psychological to the economic and political to tackle this monumental issue.
“Everyone is responsible for change,” he added. “As individuals, we have to correct our own behavior and that of our children. The larger society that has and continues to profit from our oppression must be forced to make the victims whole. Treatment is not child’s play at any level. Big, some call them revolutionary, interventions are required.”
Dr. Jeffrey Shipko, a former teacher, coach, and public-school administrator, is doing what Harrell has suggested—getting involved with addressing the PTSD issue. Shipko, who has a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, is a board member of Lost Boyz Inc., a South Shore youth organization that provides tutoring, mentoring, anger management, community service, and entrepreneurship activities for high risk, low-income and incarcerated youth who often have been abused.
After seeing signs of emotional distress and general unhappiness in the young Black males in the Lost Boyz program, Dr. Shipko decided to raise awareness and share with the coaches that the Lost Boyz program is about more than sports and other activities and has to include the social and emotional wellbeing of the youth.
Though retired from practicing, Dr. Shipko said he is still interested in the social and emotional development of boys and girls.
“I’m still hopeful, but much sadder these days about the police shootings of African-American males and all the racism and that after all these years later, we’re still fighting the same things,” said Dr. Shipko.
Dr. Shipko will host a program from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 14 at the DuSable Museum of African-American History, 740 E. 56th St., to help raise awareness about PTSD and other mental illnesses and emotional distress. This program will also address the reasons African- Americans in general do not seek mental health services.
Dr. Shipko reached out to Dr. Darnell Lamont Walker. During the program in September, Dr. Walker will share his 80-minute documentary “Outside the House,” a series of interviews with African-Americans who have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, trauma, rape, physical abuse, alcoholism, anxiety, and suicidal ideation without ever asking for help.
“… it’s never been a time since African-Americans have been in the U.S. that we weren’t traumatized,” Dr. Walker said. “We’ve been traumatized the entire time we’ve been in this country. African-Americans who see combat in the military are traumatized both from military combat and for just being Black in America.”
Dr. Walker said the stigma of seeking help for mental illness stems from growing up in African-American households and being told not to share what goes on in the household with anybody.
“People also sometimes feel strongly about not sharing what bothers them because they feel it would make them appear weak, so they wear a mask that everything is okay. However, seeking help and sharing what bothers them, is the strongest thing they can do. The strongest thing someone can do is to say, ‘I’m not okay’ and seek help.”
Walker’s documentary addresses the fear, shame, racism and stigma of mental illness in the Black community and the shame and humiliation that too often, African-American women experience for reporting sexual or physical abuse.
The screening of Walker’s documentary is free; for more information or to register, visit: https://www.eventbrite.com (Outside the House film screening).
While there is currently no end in sight to the violence we see in our communities, you do not have to suffer the effects of PTSD alone. What are you doing to deal with PTSD in your life and the lives of your loved ones? If you feel that you or anyone you know is affected by PTSD, seek help today.