For many people within the Black community, racial trauma – or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) – is a mental health condition that can have dire consequences on your health if left untreated. RBTS refers to the mental and emotional injury an individual may develop after having experienced racially charged discrimination and/or harassment.
With July recognized as Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, Kaiser Permanente is raising awareness about mental health issues facing underrepresented groups, including the Black population, and the importance of seeking timely treatment when needed.
Mental Health America (MHA) is one of the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit organizations dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness, and promoting the overall mental health of all. The tragic death of George Floyd and events that followed present a unique moment in history, a time where the trauma of Blacks is being acknowledged like never before.
“Discrimination based on race has a painfully detrimental psychological impact on the Black community,” said Chidi Njoku, a licensed clinical social worker and department administrator of Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center. “In fact, for many members of the Black community today, the prolonged exposure to these racially charged situations results in symptoms similar to those exhibited in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
Such symptoms include anger, depression, repeated thoughts of the negative experience, headaches, chest pains, insomnia, hypervigilance, low self-esteem and mentally distancing from the traumatic events.
“For many, acts of racism and/or microaggressions are an unfortunate part of our reality,” Njoku said. “If you’re an individual who has experienced the previously mentioned symptoms in a way that feels unmanageable, you’re more than likely suffering from a race-based traumatic stress injury.”
According to PEW Charitable Trusts, racism is a contributor to a public health crisis. It noted Black women are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than white women. Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as white men. And the average life expectancy of Black Americans is four years lower than the rest of the U.S. population.
It is important to seek help when facing mental health challenges – including those caused by racial trauma. If left untreated, these symptoms can worsen and cause severe problems to your overall health, Njoku stressed. Concerns about privacy can at times be a deterrent for some in these communities, and he emphasized that protecting your privacy is a highly important aspect of mental health treatment. Be assured that discussions with your mental health provider, which include your diagnosis and treatment plan, are kept confidential, Njoku explained. No family member, employer or insurance company can access your medical records without the patient’s permission.
“A person with good self-care routines that seek a balance between mental, physical, social and spiritual spheres in their life is doing well for themselves,” Njoku noted. “Neglecting or ignoring these areas will often create a domino effect in other spheres, and will likely have a negative effect on your overall mental and physical health.”
Knowing when to seek help
Njoku encourages members of the Black community to seek help if you’re experiencing any of the Race Based Trauma symptoms at a level that’s effecting your ability to be present in life. These include work or school performance not going well. When it comes to your mental health, individuals should prioritize themselves and not listen to the stigmas or any other detractors that would discourage you from getting the support you need.
“If you’re too anxious or depressed to advocate for yourself, it’s okay to lean on someone you trust for support to get the help you need,” Njoku added. “Remember: As scary as it may feel one of the most courageous things you could do is take the time to invest in yourself by seeking help.”