Post-traumatic stress disorder is in the news again. When soldiers return home they are often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some Black soldiers have struggled with this disease well before they were enlisted to fight wars in foreign countries. PTSD is not limited to Black soldiers, but is something that the African-American community faces as a whole.
The jobless rate for Black men is twice of that of white males. African-Americans make up 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated population (2014, National Center for PTSD). According to the Human Rights Watch, students of color are subjected to more severe punishment in school than their white classmates. In terms of the war on drugs, people of color are more likely to receive higher sentences than white offenders. Of children under the age of 6 living in poverty, 45.8 percent are Black compared with 14.5 percent white. The list goes on and the racial disparity only gets wider.
This country was not built on ideals that intended to make Blacks equal to whites (2012, State of Working America). That is not the foundation or principal that helped foster this nation. These statistics are meant to illustrate what it means to be Black in America.
Monnica Williams, Ph.D., director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville, has done research on the claim that racism can cause PTSD, and the findings have implications for classification in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders” by the American Psychiatric Association (2013, Psychology Today, online edition).
Racism can feel life-threatening at times, according to Williams’ findings. She studied African- American men working in low-income jobs who were subjected to bigotry and discovered that they soon began to suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and feelings related to humiliation. When a few filed complaints, either their jobs were threatened or they were fired shortly after. A few of the men started to experience intrusive thoughts, had trouble concentrating, were irritable and had flashbacks. One of the men sued on grounds of job-related discrimination after he was fired for complaining. He was suffering from race-based trauma.
However, racism is not the only factor that causes PTSD among African-Americans. According to Terrie Williams’ book “Black Pain,” the environment that most Blacks are subjected to also has a huge effect on their psyche.
Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, mental health advocate, author and entrepreneur. She states often on TV, on panels,and in conversation and articles that violence, sirens, poverty, unemployment and drugs all play a role in that shock. PTSD sometimes presents itself in the form of depression and this depression and anger stirs inside of so many African-Americans who have yet to find a space where they can express their emotion. Williams told the AmNews, “I think the hardest job in America is to be a Black man. I remember a few years ago a mother was shot in the leg. Now, whenever her daughter hears a loud sound, she screams. That little girl needs to be in a room somewhere with a therapist, so that the trauma comes out in some way, so that the healing can begin.”
The problem is not that Blacks do not seek help, but that there is no space where their trauma, race-based or conditioned through environments in which systemic oppression has placed them, is recognized and respected in white America.
“I remember this kid got up and said that he had stabbed another young man,” said Williams. “He said, ‘I didn’t kill him and he wasn’t even the one I was mad at.’ So many things happen in our lives and there’s some things that never get processed, that get carried. There are many people that aren’t medicated and never got any help.”
Mara Brock Akil, writer and producer (“Being Mary Jane” and “Girlfriends”), implied through her work that she, like Monnica Williams, believes that Black people’s mental state is caused partly by the abusive interactions with the white world around them. Through one of her characters in the popular BET show “Being Mary Jane,” an African-American lawyer who had recently quit his job, had said the following in terms of suicide among Black men:
“Etouffer … did you know that it literally means to suffocate? … My point is that Black men in America today have been smothered literally their whole lives, as they crawl their way up the ranks. Smothered by corporate trade, smothered by racism, smothered by oppression, smothered by hatred, smothered by fear, smothered by a system that truly never wanted to see them succeed … Black men represent freedom and that’s what they want to squash. So many Black men have been surveyed, bullied, until we find ourselves standing out on a ledge with nowhere to go but down.”
It’s funny to talk about treatment. It’s as if we’re talking about finding a cure for bigotry. It is not as clean-cut as a pill, but more importantly it is not even recognized as an issue. If an illness is not acknowledged, it cannot be diagnosed or treated. Race-based trauma, as Monnica Williams calls it, is not considered a disorder because racism doesn’t fit the PTSD criteria. Therefore victims may even be further subjected to racism by psychologists who may unknowingly express racist rebuffs in an attempt to explain how racism is not that big of an issue (2009, Journal of Anxiety Disorders).
As of now, most mental health professionals do not acknowledge it as a psychological issue, even though the psychopathology of rape victims and victims of racism is similar. Both are affronts on the condition, virtue and coherence of the victim. Victims of each may enter a state of shock, self-blame and dissociation. There is also a shame in allowing themselves to be victimized. Someone that may have experienced a racist incident may be told that if they had acted or dressed in a certain way, they would not have faced racism. However when these guidelines are followed and the bigotry continues, the PTSD may worsen.
In addition to that, the resources for help simply are not accessible. Poverty takes a toll on mental health status and because African-Americans are twice as likely to live at or below the poverty line, they are four times more likely to develop psychological distress, whereas whites are twice as more likely to receive antidepressant prescriptions than Blacks. A source from The Root reported the following:
“Young Black males live in some of the most difficult circumstances in our society. The data show that Black men go to jail, drop out of school and are victims of crime at rates far higher than their white counterparts. Moreover, young Black males are more likely to live in more challenging family environments. Sixty-eight percent of all Black households are single-parent households, pointing to an absence of male role models for young boys. The combination of family stress, violence in their communities and the discrimination they face is taking a toll. Some mental health specialists argue that the rates may even be higher. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that ‘death-by-cop’ incidents should be counted as suicides. He believes that some despondent young men intentionally break the law so someone else will kill them.”
Generally, therapists declare that, in terms of treatment, the best way for a victim to cope with their race-based PTSD is through cognitive therapy. In a perfect world, victims should be guided by their therapists in understanding how to change the way they process their trauma and its effect on them (2008, Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice). Terrie Williams says that a therapist would help them to comprehend their stress and deal with their feelings of shame, fear and rage. The best way to treat these victims is to talk about it. “We shy away from therapy as a community, but we should really embrace it,” Williams advised. “Speaking with a professional definitely helps.”
Therapy advocates proclaim that the rest of the country should probably consider following suit. In a nation where anyone can watch a cop on video shoot an unarmed man and still have the public wondering whether or not the officer will be penalized because the victim is Black is an unfortunate reality. Some mental health experts determine that with all the political and civil upheaval occurring, the entire country may be suffering from some mental distress.