Trauma does not always come in the form of war or an isolated assault — sometimes it looks like discrimination on a daily basis.

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A previous understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was that it primarily occurred with post-war veterans. Previously called “battle fatigue,” we know now that anyone can experience PTSD due to a traumatic situation, regardless of environment.

When the word “trauma” enters a conversation, many people immediately think of abuse, neglect, or assault.

But consider what it would be like if several parts of your day were traumatic, leading you to face aspects of PTSD daily.

That is the effect of racism for Black people living in the United States.

Instead of being stirred by fireworks, imagine becoming tense as a police car slowly drives by. Or maybe you are not receiving the help you need in class because you’ve been deemed trouble from the beginning. Or you are locking eyes with the mall attendant who’s watching you but not any of the people who don’t look like you.

These types of situations occur regularly for Black people and People of Color. Over time, it can take a toll on mental health.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an ongoing mental health response to trauma, whether an isolated incident — such as sexual assault — or a recurring issue, like living in an abusive household.

Generally, to be diagnosed, a psychiatrist might take note of whether you’ve had:

  • exposure to a traumatic event, either directly or indirectly
  • symptoms that continue for at least a month
  • negatively affected relationships

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the following are common traits in those who have experienced harm:

  • intrusion symptoms
  • avoiding traumatic situations
  • major shifts in mood or cognition
  • hypervigilance

Examples of trauma are endless, and for People of Color — particularly Black people — the experience is almost definite and compounded.

Historical racism

“Racial battle fatigue” and “post-traumatic slave syndrome” are terms coined in the 2000s. They bolster the idea of racism being a form of trauma.

Both latch on to not only the day-to-day interactions that wear on Black people and other People of Color — particularly those from diasporic communities — but how the generations before and their trauma impact those after them.

The Strong Black Woman trope is one form of historical racism that has origins in slavery and continues today and impacts Black women from generation to generation.

According to the 2019 study in Sex Roles, the Strong Black Woman schema is “…an amalgamation of beliefs and cultural expectations of incessant resilience, independence, and strength that guide meaning making, cognition, and behavior related to Black womanhood.”

From the 1600s and through the Jim Crow era, this looked like carrying the expectation of keeping the house in order and caring for children (who may or may not be yours). It also meant dealing with blatant, encouraged, and legal discrimination that often turned violent.

Even with all of these moving pieces happening concurrently, Black women were still expected to keep things moving along and to show minimal emotion.

ACE Scores

Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores assess and count potentially stressful or harmful situations from a person’s childhood. Those with high ACE scores have a higher chance of chronic health conditions — such as high blood pressure and diabetes — and a higher chance of developing a mental health condition, such as depression.

A 20-year prospective study suggests that high levels of stress, or toxic stress, occur throughout the day and during adolescence. This toxic stress can be caused by several factors, such as:

  • moving from one place to another more frequently than usual
  • lack of food, or food insecurity
  • living in low-income communities

Due to the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s clear Black children are treated poorly by the school system, another example that acknowledges they’re traumatized every day.

Physical health implications

High amounts of stress increase your cells’ production of cortisol. Cortisol is a naturally produced chemical, arriving during stressful times, but can cause health issues if overproduced.

In a 2015 study, researchers discussed knowing the higher cortisol levels in Black participants is connected to the stress of discrimination.

High levels (and according to the study, when levels are too low) of cortisol can lead to ongoing chronic conditions.

Similar to the ACE scores, this can cause diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Avoiding ’weakness’

Hypervigilance is a critical component of a PTSD diagnosis.

Similarly, many Black folks have known for the duration of their lives that they would be treated differently over aspects of themselves they cannot change and then have grown to see these predictions come true.

Studies show that long-term exposure to stressors — such as racism, discrimination, and lack of education and economic opportunities — in Black communities increase the likelihood of mental health conditions, particularly depression, at higher rates than in other communities.

However, Black people in these communities are less likely to see a mental health professional or receive treatment.

One study found that 63% of Black people thought that having a mental health condition, such as depression, was a sign of “weakness” or “lack of inner strength.”

While there is no cure for PTSD, there are ways to manage its symptoms. Treatment often includes a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

Medications — such as antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — are often used to help manage symptoms of depression or anxiety in people with PTSD.

Various types of therapy can also help manage symptoms of PTSD. These include:

Many of these studies have surveyed adults, inquiring about their experiences. While this information is useful for creating inventions for adults, there’s also a need to address how trauma affects children in real-time.

Intervention for children could be a great focus for clinicians, policymakers, and researchers regarding equity legislation and studies.

If you’re a person within the Black community who believes you’re in need of support, there are lots of resources available to you:

Psych Central also has some resources that can aid you on your journey to finding the right mental health professional for you: