Racial Trauma: Should it Be Given More Recognition in the Mental Health Sphere?

Janet Kimani

What is Racial Trauma?

Racial trauma, or Race-Based Traumatic Stress (RBTS) is a form of mental and emotional injury caused by experiences of racial or ethnic discrimination, both individual and systemic. Such experiences could be real or perceived, and they include: physical harm or threats of injury, humiliating or shaming experiences, and dehumanising encounters of abuse, verbal or otherwise. These experiences could cause racial trauma to an individual either directly, vicariously or even intergenerationally.

The recent atrocities on Jacob Blake and George Floyd, have brought much needed attention to racial inequality and racial tensions, both in the United States and globally. This calls into question the effects of such events on the affected families and communities as a whole. Therefore, the conversation on racial trauma urgently needs to be had, now more than ever. There is a pressing need to discuss racial trauma, to raise awareness, and to acknowledge that it needs a bigger lime light in the mental health sphere.

Vicarious VS Intergenerational Trauma

Vicarious experiences act as triggers where people witness incidences of racism outside of their personal experience. For example, constant exposure to violent videos involving people from your community such as the infamous videos of police brutality on the African American community in the United States. Members of that community may be strongly effected by such videos, resulting in emotional and mental injury in cases of repeated exposure. Another example of this is the fact that two thirds of Latino youths who migrate to the United States report having gone through a racially traumatising experience during, and post migration, with the most reported traumatic being having witnessed a violent assault on another member of their community.

Intergenerational trauma on the other hand is the passing down of trauma from one generation to the next. In this context, members of a specific community become more susceptible to mental and psychological disorders due to intense levels of racial violence experienced by previous generations. Trauma can thus pass down families, and even entire communities. For example descendants of Holocaust survivors tend to have higher vulnerability to psychological disturbances. This vulnerability has a direct link to the historical atrocities suffered by their predecessors. Additionally, Native American often experience both vicarious and intergenerational trauma. Younger generations of Native Americans are prone to vicarious trauma as a result of the alarming rates of societal homicide and suicide. However, they also experience historical trauma as a result of the massacres, and forced removal from their tribal lands, which presents a source of communal loss and grief.

Racial Trauma: Should it Be Given More Recognition in the Mental Health Sphere?
Source: Sana Powell

Today, amongst persons of colour, black people are the most vulnerable to racial trauma due to the higher levels of racial discrimination and violence they face. Extreme circumstances such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbate levels of discrimination, both individual and systemic. In the United States for instance, due to already the existing social and economic disparities, African Americans are the least equipped to weather the storm. Such situations therefore increase their vulnerability to Racial Based Traumatic Stress.

Should RBTS be Recognised as a Mental Disorder?

In severe cases, racial trauma is comparable to a more commonly known mental disorder: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In these cases racial trauma shares many of the PTSD symptoms such as depression, insomnia, extreme anger, and flashbacks of the traumatising events. Other common symptoms of racial trauma include: anxiety, hyper-vigilance, avoidance, and low self esteem. Racial trauma may further manifest itself in physical effects such as headaches and chest pains.

Although attuned in the aforementioned similarities, unlike PTSD , Racial Trauma is currently not in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), and is instead classified as a mental injury. As a result, racial trauma is sidelined in mental health practice whereby many non-BIPOC therapists rarely recognise it amongst their affected patients.

According to social welfare specialist Jacqueline Ogorchukwu Iyamah, a major cause for this is that traditionally, the psychology field has been mainly centred on the white experience. Therefore, most therapists and practitioners lack the cultural competence to diagnose, and effectively treat BIPOC specific conditions such as racial trauma. On the contrary, many BIPOC who seek professional help for issues of racial trauma unfortunately end up gaslit by their therapists. This thus adds to the invalidation and the isolation of racial trauma.

Coping Mechanisms for Racial Trauma

In cases of PTSD, victims are usually able to heal and overcome their trauma through professional help and counselling. The reason being that more often than not, separation of the victims from the original cause of trauma is possible, which facilitates the healing process. Conversely, with racial trauma, healing is almost always an unachievable option. This is as a result of constant re-exposure to those same triggers and experiences either directly or vicariously. In short, for most BIPOC, racial encounters are an embedded part of their everyday lives, and thus in the absence of healing, coping becomes the most viable solution.

Source: Sun Life

Over time therefore, mental health professionals have identified several effective coping mechanisms for dealing with racial trauma. Firstly, one should identify a culturally competent therapist, equipped to intervene in cases of racial trauma. With regard to this, institutions with mental health resources such as schools, should make an effort to provide adequate resources for their minority population, in solidarity and acknowledgement of their experience. Secondly, activism is another effective coping mechanism as it empowers, and helps one to identify with an understanding community. This sense of belonging helps validate one’s experience, and provides hope to victims of racial trauma.

Other coping mechanisms include taking breaks from the various triggers in one’s control such as social media, or the news especially in such times of racial tension. While events such as BLM protests may be empowering to those partaking in them, they may also become a source of anxiety and stress especially to members of the affected community. Therefore, occasional breaks from the outside world, and investing in self care are indispensable. Self care practices that have proven to be helpful include meditation, journaling, and exercise. Physical exercise is especially useful as it helps release any pent up trauma that is usually stored in the body. The final piece of advice for those who have experienced gaslighting and invalidation is beautifully summarised by Jacqueline Ogorchukwu:

“Your experience is your expertise”.

  • Should racial trauma be given the same priority as disorders such as PTSD in mental health practice?
  • How can non- BIPOC mental health practitioners equip themselves to offer more culturally informed interventions?
  • Should international institutions e.g. universities be obliged to have more culturally sensitive mental health resources?

Suggested Further Reading

American Psychological Association, Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing: Introduction to the Special Issue

Mental Health America, Racial Trauma

Project LETS, Race and Mental Health


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Racial Trauma: Should it …

by Janet Kimani time to read: 5 min