Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression within the African-American community have gone mostly unnoticed or, in many cases, not spoken of, but several experts said research has demonstrated that trauma is passed through the DNA of black people.
“The stress and its consequences of being black in America — PTSD, the trauma of poverty and the belief that we, as African-Americans, are more tolerant of pain. … I talk with so many people who feel this sense of heaviness that they cannot explain especially with the use of social media and they are overwhelmed,” said Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew, a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project and author of two workbooks for women, including “Rules of Engagement, Making Connections Last.”
Booker-Drew noted a 2016 report that revealed that blacks have PTSD and may not even know it.
The report included this observation from Dr. Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist and director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities:
“PTSD symptoms typically include intrusive thoughts about the trauma, avoidance of thoughts or reminders of the trauma, anxiety, concerns about safety, feeling constantly on guard, fears of being judged because of the trauma, and depression.”
Williams told the Atlanta Black Star in a recent interview that individuals may also have flashbacks and feelings of dissociation and very severe PTSD can result in psychosis, and PTSD can be temporarily or permanently disabling.
“Symptoms specific to race-based trauma in African-Americans may include avoidance of white people, fears and anxiety in the presence of law enforcement, paranoia and suspicion, and excessive worries about the safety of family and friends,” Williams said.
In addition, the trauma of poverty has been an issue but that too has seldom been discussed, Booker-Drew said.
“Dealing with numerous systems for support and assistance is tiresome. For instance, people who are affluent have social networks that can serve as resources financially, with knowledge and other connections,” she said. “For people in poverty, there is a lack of access which compounds the frustration. What might take a person of influence one phone call to a person in power is not the same as someone who is calling automated phone lines and talking to multiple people for answers. It also has an impact on our mental health and brain physiology.”
According to the United States Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, adult African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. Adult African-Americans living below poverty are three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty.
Further, adult African-Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than adult whites, and while blacks are less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, African-Americans teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers — 8.3 percent vs. 6.2 percent.
The human services report also noted that blacks of all ages are more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than are non-Hispanic whites, making them more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
A September Newsweek article noted two recent influential reports they said cracked open a public conversation on the matter. In one, researchers found that impoverished children had less gray matter — brain tissue that supports information processing and executive behavior — in their hippocampus (involved in memory), frontal lobe (involved in decision making, problem solving, impulse control, judgment, and social and emotional behavior) and temporal lobe (involved in language, visual and auditory processing and self-awareness).
Working together, these brain areas are crucial for following instructions, paying attention and overall learning — some of the keys to academic success.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, examined 389 people between 4 and 22 years old. A quarter of the participants came from homes well below the federal poverty level ($24,230 annual income for a family of four in 2016). Children from the poorest backgrounds showed greater diminishment of gray matter and scored lower on standardized tests.
The second key study, published in Nature Neuroscience, looked at 1,099 people between ages 3 and 20, and found that children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year.
“We have [long] known about the social class differences in health and learning outcomes,” said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
But neuroscience has now linked the environment, behavior and brain activity — and that could lead to a stunning overhaul of both educational and social policies, like rethinking Head Start-style programs that have traditionally emphasized early literacy.
“There is a rise in schools becoming aware of social-emotional learning to help young people in poverty to develop necessary skills to deal with their feelings,” Booker-Drew said. “This is needed in more schools but adults also need more safe spaces for support, conversation, and self-care. Without this intentionality to deal with our own PTSD, we will continue to see increases in hopelessness, self-hatred, and mental health issues.”