By Angela Lindsay
The videos are graphic and chilling. For a stretch, it seemed that almost daily images of African Americans being injured and killed were captured on social media and broadcast across the news. With all of this violence regularly streaming directly into our collective consciousness, many African Americans are feeling increased levels of stress and anxiety. In fact, studies show that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a very real result in African Americans, from their frequent exposure to these disturbing scenes.
According to the National Center for PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or sexual assault. Its symptoms include being hyperaware of your surroundings, constantly scanning and looking for danger or anything that may seem out of the ordinary, lack of sleep, intense or heightened anger and irritability, inability to concentrate and flashbacks of events that may have been witnessed or experienced.
“When you see the incidents of hate crimes increasing since the election, as well as police shootings and killings on the news and social media constantly, it can seriously impact the amount of stress and anxiety within the African-American community,” explains Dr. Damon Silas, a licensed clinical psychologist and consulting hypnotist. “When you are unsure if you will be next, whether as a victim of a hate crime or a negative police interaction, it puts you on guard constantly.”
The psychological effect of racism is a relatively recent area of study, having really emerged over the past 15 years. While blatant racism in the form of hate crimes or assault can obviously trigger feelings of dehumanization and helplessness, Psychologytoday.com reports that even a series of racial micro-aggressions (subtle, yet pervasive, acts of racism such as brief remarks, vague insults or even non-verbal exchanges) can contribute to feelings of paranoia and alienation. African Americans, in particular, tend to internalize these feelings or become desensitized.
When violent images show someone who looks like you as the victim and then justice fails to be served, African Americans can begin to internalize certain messages such as: It’s hard to trust certain people (whether cops or even people in the neighborhood) or we really are wrong or bad and deserve the treatment we get, Silas says.
“In certain communities, such as those wrought with violence and poverty, African Americans can experience PTSD, but may resort to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or display an increase in violent behaviors,” he adds, pointing out that most African Americans normalize their responses and reactions and consequently do not or cannot seek mental health treatment.
“Stigma and judgment prevent African Americans from seeking treatment for their mental illnesses. A contributing factor to this is the fact that we are taught in the African-American community to ‘just pray about it,’ and many African Americans believe that being diagnosed with depression or anxiety would be considered ‘crazy’ in their social circles,” says licensed professional counselor Che’Landra Moore-Quarles. “I often tell clients that while it is important to pray and stay connected spiritually, one must also take action to make changes in their lives.”
Before any progress can be made, however, the individual must acknowledge that he or she may be dealing with PTSD. Then, there are many effective solutions available for him or her to pursue.
Silas suggests interventions such as individual therapy with a professional who has been trained in trauma, meditation and yoga and support groups, as well as hypnosis and other approaches known as emotional freedom techniques, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and cognitive-behavioral therapy. There are even mobile phone applications such as PTSD Coach, which Silas recommends using, along with the assistance of a professional to maximize benefits. Finally, he offers trying forgiveness.
“If one is able to forgive the person who committed the act of trauma, this can have very powerful and healing results,” he says.
In addition to professional guidance, there are personal steps that individuals should take, such as exercising, eating healthy foods, spending time with family and friends and having regular medical checkups, Moore-Quarles adds.
“Treating one’s mental health is just as important as treating a physical illness or injury,” she says. “Neither will heal properly if neglected and uncared for, without the right support. The decision to get care for PTSD symptoms can be difficult. It is not uncommon for people with mental health conditions like PTSD to want to avoid talking about it. But getting help for your symptoms is the best thing you can do. It is important to seek treatment for PTSD to enjoy life, maintain a healthy relationship and do well at work and school.”