Racism is decliningPeople of color live with the replication of racism on a daily basis. We battle it in our social and professional lives as cultural pressure mounts to adhere to colorblind ideology. Well, it is impossible to gaze at me and not see my brown complexion, and this alone may cause the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dr. Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist and associate director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities, is suggesting racism be added as a catalyst for post-traumatic stress disorder in the latest edition of the psychology’s Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Dr. Williams thinks this could assist in diagnosing race-based trauma in racial and ethnic minorities. She writes in an article for Psychology Today:

One major factor in understanding PTSD in ethnoracial minorities is the impact of racism on emotional and psychological well-being. Racism continues to be a daily part of American culture, and racial barriers have an overwhelming impact on the oppressed. Much research has been conducted on the social, economic, and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color (Carter, 2007).Chou, Asnaani, and Hofmann (2012) found that perceived racial discrimination was associated with increased mental disorders in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, suggesting that racism may in itself be a traumatic experience.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder impacts more than 9.1 percent of all African-Americans according to Dr. Williams and these numbers are equally as high among other minorities. Dr. Williams asserts PTSD is also more disabling for minorities, impacting work and everyday activities.

“The problem is these things affect our self-esteem, because when we meet a micro-aggression or some sort of slight or assault, we don’t know if it’s because of our color, because the attacks are not blatant anymore, or if it’s because of something about us,” Williams told HuffPost Live host Marc Lamont Hill.

The current definition of PTSD isn’t adequate in recognizing race-based trauma as a cause. Dr. Williams writes:

This is problematic given that many minorities experience cumulative experiences of racism as traumatic, with perhaps a minor event acting as “the last straw” in triggering trauma reactions (Carter, 2007). Thus, current conceptualizations of trauma as a discrete event may be limiting for diverse populations.  Moreover, existing PTSD measures aimed at identifying an index trauma typically fail to include racism among listed choice response options, leaving such events to be reported as “other” or squeezed into an existing category that may not fully capture the nature of the trauma.

“The new criteria do open the door to this by acknowledging that a series of minor slights or series of what might be seen as lesser types of trauma can accumulate and result in trauma,” she explained.

Dr. William’s logic is an extension of 2011 researcher that found black Americans who have experienced discrimination have a higher chance of suffering with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This is classified has “racial battle fatigue,” referred to by PsychCentral as “exposure to racial discrimination is analogous to the constant pressure soldiers face on the battlefield.”

Dr. Jose Soto, an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, explains this further.

“While the term [racial battle fatigue] is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments,” he said.

Dr. Williams thinks classifying racism as a cause for PTSD will assist in providing adequate treatment for people of color.

The planned changes to the DSM increase the potential for better recognition of race-based trauma, although more research will be needed to understand the mechanism by which this occurs. Additionally, current instruments should be expanded and a culturally competent model of PTSD must be developed to address how culture may differentially influence traumatic stress. In the meantime, clinicians should educate themselves about the impact of racism in lives of their ethnic minority clients, specifically the connection between racist events and trauma.

Chime in Clutchettes. Have you experienced racism? Has how it impacted you psychologically?

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