Milton I., 50, a resident living with schizophrenia at The Robert Meineker House, wipes his eyes as he speaks about the loneliness caused by social distancing in an empty common area, Wednesday, May 6, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Even before the pandemic, access to mental health services in the U.S. could be difficult, including for people with insurance. Now experts fear COVID-19 will make the situation worse.
Julia Agos is a reporter and the host of All Things Considered for WITF. Previously, she was a political reporter for WFUV News in New York, where she covered New York City and state politics and hosted the Prickly Politics Podcast. Julia grew up in Sacramento, California and graduated from Fordham University.
(Harrisburg) — The death of George Floyd in Minnesota has sparked a national conversation about racial justice in the US. Some of that dialog has centered around the need for better mental health awareness and services in the Black community.
Racial trauma refers to the mental toll many Black Americans face from regular encounters with racism.
These kinds of confrontations can have long lasting and even generational effects on people of color.
The effects are two-fold.
One is the prolonged activation of a stress hormone in the brain that can lead to long term negative health effects, while the other is the generational effect racial trauma can have on group of people
Dr. Altha Stewart is the Senior Associate Dean or Community Health Engagement at UT Health Science Center-Memphis. She was also the first African American President of the American Psychiatric Association.
Stewart was one of the panelists on the second installment of WITF’s series of virtual conversations this summer called Toward Racial Justice. The series is focusing on the effects of race on politics, economics, mental health and more.
She says a racist confrontation activates the fight or flight response. When the brain recognizes danger, the chemical Cortisol is released to raise alertness to help navigate the situation. But when faced with such encounters on a frequent bases – that hormone never gets turned off.
“The problem with long standing chronic trauma is that response is never turned off. And so, what you have is a body and particularly brain that is bathed in this thing that is only supposed to be released when you need it,” Stewart said.
Stewart says Black children and teens are often misdiagnosed with disorders like ADHD – because they are hyper-vigilant or aggressive.
“We mistake those signs and behavior for symptoms of an with an illness that has those signs as part of their symptoms, when in fact these many be children who are suffering from long standing trauma that is now impacting their normal childhood development,” Stewart explained.
The misdiagnoses can contribute to violent behavior or substance abuse. Stewart said such habits could be prevented if the cause of the trauma was alleviated early on.
She noted these effects are compounded by the stigma around mental health that can exist in the Black community.
Alphonso Nathan, a licensed professional counselor, agreed. He also serves as the Vice President of a private counseling practice Brightside Counseling.
Nathan said the stigma around mental health has prevented people from seeking treatment.
“A lot of individuals, that are Black people, Black men, hold these things in because there wasn’t any outlet for us to feel like we can speak out on it because if we did we would be seen as soft, we would have been seen as ungrateful. And it creates what we call learned helplessness,” Nathan said.
Charles D. Ellison, who served as the moderator of the discussion, is a host at WURD in Philadelphia. He said, when it comes to mental health, society expects Black people to tough it out and not talk about pervasive racism.
“Society expects that we as Black people should just tough it out. Slavery happened 400 years ago, or it ended 150 years ago…Why are you all still bothered by this?” Ellison said.
When it comes to the second aspect to racial trauma — the generational element — there is growing consensus in the scientific community that trauma is passed down through generations in DNA.
Dr. Altha Stewart said the experiences of someone’s ancestors can affect how the body and brain reacts to stress today.
“Everything that preceded today’s life experience for Black people – starting with arrival on the shores of what would become the United States – laid down the framework for trauma. And literally through our DNA, generationally, that experience is passed down, even when there was no more official chattel slavery,” she explained.
Stewart says the next step in improving mental health among communities of color is an important one.
“The awareness and willingness to do the work has got to come out of the white community. We – meaning black people- put our faith in the system for so long and we consistently disappointed. So, if we are to trust this tipping point, we appear to be at is real we cannot be the ones directing all the work,” Stewart said.
Stewart says conversations like these helps to shed light on the issue and destigmatize mental health services.