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Op-Ed

KY psychologists: Cumulative racism leads to racial trauma, similar to PTSD.

In the past few weeks, Black people have been repeatedly reminded of the risks involved when they interact with police, been repeatedly exposed to videos of Black men and women being murdered, and seen a military response to communities protesting these abuses. These experiences are piled onto the daily experiences of direct, indirect and systemic racism. The cumulative effect of these experience can have a serious damaging impact to the mental and physical health of Black people. Psychological scientists have come to describe this impact as racial trauma.

Psychological science suggests that people who experience race-based stress and trauma frequently have similar experiences to people who have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Distress can include flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, heart palpitations, poor sleep, and overall heightened anxiety. But where PTSD can be caused by a single event, racial stress is ongoing, pervasive, generationally transmitted, and affects both individuals and collective communities. Thus, beyond PTSD symptoms, racial trauma has enduring and re-triggered cognitive, emotional, and somatic consequences.

For example, seeing repeated videos of police killing people who look like you causes racial trauma. Hearing people in the community more concerned about property than Black lives causes racial trauma. The cumulation of hundreds of well-meaning, seemingly innocuous comments about Black peoples’ appearance, language, and emotions causes racial trauma. Exposure to repeated stressors can lead to long-term increases in stress hormones in the body, which exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, is associated with a host of negative health outcomes, such as high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular events. As Dr. Steven Kniffley, assistant professor of Psychology at Spalding University, says “The stress of being Black is literally killing us.”

There is help for individuals who are affected by racial trauma. Oftentimes people who experience racism are invalidated or told that they need to “get over it” or “stop being so sensitive.” Psychological research tells us that talking about our pain can help soothe us, help us feel like we aren’t alone. Talking with your friends or family who will understand and validate your feelings is a good option if available to you. Another option we suggest is psychotherapy specifically aimed at healing racial trauma. One place that offers this kind of therapy is the Center for Healing Racial Trauma, directed by Dr. Candice Hargons, assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky. They are based in Lexington but offer telehealth services across the state. Dr. Hargons suggests “healing racial trauma requires a multifaceted approach, with creative interventions that go beyond the therapeutic frameworks designed by white people.”

In Louisville, Dr. Steven Kniffley formed the Collective Care Center to provide psychotherapy for people who have suffered from racial trauma. According to Dr. Kniffley, “At the Collective Care Center, racial trauma therapy involves developing racial identity, processing experiences of racial trauma, and building and practicing skills for future racially traumatic events.”

While these options may be helpful, it should not be the burden of Black people and other people of color to cope with racism and racial trauma. The American Psychological Association has recently stated that we are dealing with a pandemic of racism, and we must actively work to undermine the racist underpinnings of our society.

This will necessitate policy change on local, state, and national levels. As Black people have been doing for decades, white people need to act and mobilize our communities to demand change from our political leaders. If we are not actively trying to dismantle racism, then we are tacitly condoning it.

The Kentucky Psychological Association recognizes the devastating impact that racism and racial trauma have on Black people and other people of color. We commit ourselves to dismantling racism in our practice of psychology and in our communities. We strongly encourage all of you to do the same. Additional resources from Drs. Kniffley and Hargons can be found at www.kpa.org.

Brighid Kleinman and Eric Russ are licensed psyhologists in Louisville.

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