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‘Roots’ Sparks Conversation About Racism’s Toll on Black Psyche

“People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.” — Samuel L. Jackson

“People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.” — Samuel L. Jackson

The History Channel’s remake of Alex Haley’s culture-altering biography “Roots” has sparked new conversation about race and the toll it has taken psychologically on African-Americans.

And a line from one the white masters in the series sums up the mental warfare that some say still takes place today: “You cannot buy a slave, you have to make a slave.”

Racism and its effect mentally has led to chronic stress for many who lack the resources to cope, according to numerous therapists and educators.

“Psychological symptoms of racism-related stress can include feelings of sadness, vulnerability, helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, agitation, anger, nervousness, paranoia, panic, fatigue or lack of energy,” said Dr. Kristen Lee Costa, the lead faculty for Behavioral Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston.

For African-American adults, even perceived racism may cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma and could lead to some physical health disparities between blacks and other populations in the United States, according to a 2011 study published by the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States.

While other studies have found links between racism and mental health, the APA study was the first meta-analysis on the subject focusing exclusively on black American adults.

“We focused on black American adults because this is a population that has reported, on average, more incidents of racism than other racial minority groups and because of the potential links between racism and not only mental health, but physical health as well,” said the study’s lead author, Alex Pieterse, of the State University of New York at Albany.

Researchers examined 66 studies comprising 18,140 black adults in the United States. African-Americans’ psychological responses to racism are very similar to common responses to trauma, such as somatization, which is psychological distress expressed as physical pain; interpersonal sensitivity; and anxiety, according to the study.

Individuals who said they experienced more and very stressful racism was more likely to report mental distress, the authors said.

“The relationship between perceived racism and self-reported depression and anxiety is quite robust, providing a reminder that experiences of racism may play an important role in the health disparities phenomenon,” Pieterse said. “For example, African-Americans have higher rates of hypertension, a serious condition that has been associated with stress and depression.”

Pandora MacLean-Hoover, a Lexington, Massachusetts-based therapist and life coach, said she agrees that the existence of racism has harmed and damaged individuals psychologically.

“Fear is the underlying motivator and driving force that perpetuates racism,” MacLean-Hoover said. “These pockets of fear originate in and are perpetuated by people who are in survival mode. It is a severely restricted mode for thinking and acting. I call it the soldier mode, shoot to kill or be killed.”

It’s that mode that may have contributed to the shooting death of black Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson, as well as the deaths of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray and Chicago’s LaQuan McDonald, both young African-Americans who lost their lives at the hands of police officers, several mental health professionals said.

“Bias and racism are both exerted consciously and through implicit bias and institutionalized oppression,” Costa said. “Our track record in marginalizing people because of color and for other variables has wreaked havoc and created unfavorable consequences.”

Dr. Nikki Martinez, a psychologist and licensed clinical professional counselor in Chicago, said racism has taken a step backward.

“We have the wrong people in front of the cameras, acting as if they speak for the many, when really they speak for the few,” Martinez said. “People need to sit down and have open conversations to come up with real solutions. People need to come together and realize that most people find racism and discrimination reprehensible.”

Television screens and feeds are filled with news and images of blacks dying or being brutalized, journalist Jenna Wortham wrote in a June 2015 column for the New York Times Magazine.

“A brief and yet still-too-long list: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride,” Wortham noted. “The image of a white police officer straddling a black teenager on a lawn in McKinney, Texas, had barely faded before we were forced to grapple with the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Wortham, who’s also written for Wired and Vogue, noted the numerous conversations she’s had with friends and colleagues who said they’re stressed by the recent string of events.

“Our anxiety and fear is palpable,” Wortham said. “I’ve seen several ad hoc databases of clinics and counselors crop up to help those struggling to cope. Instagram and Twitter have become a means to circulate information about yoga, meditation and holistic treatment services for African-Americans worn down by the barrage of reports about black deaths and police brutality, and I’ve been invited to several small gatherings dedicated to discussing these events.

“A handful of friends recently took off for Morocco for a few months with the explicit goal of escaping the psychic weight of life in America,” she wrote.

Still, many said there are solutions.

“We heal, we fix and we learn by communicating in an open-minded way, and with the goal of equality and peace for all,” Martinez said.

MacLean-Hoover said “experience is our teacher.”

“Judith Herman’s ‘Trauma and Recovery’ models suggest safety must be established first before subsequent phases of healing may take place,” she added.

Costa said that when any member of society is marginalized, everyone will suffer negative consequences, and when human potential and progress is inhibited, an opportunity is missed for all to reach their full potential.

“Also, health and economic disparities affect not only the oppressed group, but all of us. Plus, when racial tensions are high, we lose the chance for rich cross-cultural relationships and connections,” she said. “We must speak out against racism and work to create understanding and equitable practices.”

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