Chatham mental health professionals worry about impact of racial trauma

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/19/20

When asked what the Chatham County community can do to combat PTSD, Pittsboro-based therapist Susanne Saunders’ answer went right to current events.

“Everything that’s been going on in this …

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Chatham mental health professionals worry about impact of racial trauma

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When asked what the Chatham County community can do to combat PTSD, Pittsboro-based therapist Susanne Saunders’ answer went right to current events.

“Everything that’s been going on in this past week, when you think about the immigrant population here, their stories of having to get here and their threat of being deported, or you think about institutionalized racism that is here,” she said. “One of the things we can do is work on that, work on accepting each other, to work on this issue of racism.”

She spoke earlier this month, in the immediate aftermath of the death by police of unarmed black man George Floyd in Minnesota, which was preceded by the fatal shooting of unarmed black woman Breonna Taylor in Louisville, which was itself preceded by the deadly shooting of unarmed black man Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia.

All of these incidents, advocates say, could lead to some minorities and people of color suffering from what’s termed “racial trauma.” A 2019 article in the journal “American Psychologist” defines the term as “a form of race-based stress (that) refers to People of Color and Indigenous individuals’ (POCI) reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.”

Lara Kehle, the director of KidSCope Early Intervention and Family Support in Chatham County, said those in the mental health field have been more willing to talk about it in recent years.

“We definitely didn’t discuss the impact of race and racism, and how that’s traumatizing,” Kehle said. “Before even a couple of years ago, that wasn’t discussed at all. What’s happening in society right now is really bringing all that to light.”

Racial and ethnic minorities are already more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In a 2015 article for Psychology Today, Dr. Monnica T. Williams, the Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa, wrote that black Americans have PTSD at a 9.1 percent rate, compared to 6.8 percent in whites. She argued that the number could actually be higher in blacks “since diagnosticians are usually not considering the role of racism in causing trauma.”

Additionally, Williams argued, black Americans are “surrounded” by potential triggers for stress related to racism.

“We might see clips on the nightly news featuring unarmed African Americans being killed on the street, in a holding cell, or even in a church,” Williams wrote. “Learning of these events brings up an array of painful racially-charged memories, and what has been termed ‘vicarious traumatization.’ Even if the specific tragic news item has never happened to us directly, we may have had parents or aunts who have had similar experiences, or we know people in our community who have, and their stories have been passed down.”

Sufferers from PTSD do not need to have been directly impacted by the traumatic event to be victim to it, psychologists say. Kehle said that some families she’s spoken to have avoided coming to KidSCope parenting classes in Siler City for fear of immigration raids, and it affects everyone in a family.

“It’s impacting families being willing to get the services that they need because they’re so scared that the fact that they’re Latinx could impact their lives in a very negative way,” Kehle said. “While it may not be discussed in children 5 and under, the parents are experiencing that, so the children will be experiencing that through their parents.”

Saunders added that she has known of children who have been “traumatized” in Chatham due to race-driven negative situations.

Finding a way through the issue of racial trauma, experts say, takes time, patience and effort. Williams wrote that what’s needed is a “large-scale shift in our social consciousness” and an understanding of the “toll” that racial trauma takes on people of color. Some communities are following Williams’ advice, even in a symbolic way. The Guardian newspaper reported on June 12 that the city councils of Cleveland, Denver and Indianapolis and county officials in San Bernardino County, California, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have done the same.

It also begins, Kehle added, by working with children of minority communities who often experience more trauma than their white counterparts. A 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute said that black children are 45 percent more likely than white children “to be exposed to frightening or threatening experiences.” The report also cited studies that black students are “suspended more frequently, for longer periods of time, and receive greater punishment” than other students.

Kehle said racial and ethnic minority children need to feel safe and comfortable in places — and not just saying nice things, because talking about safety “doesn’t register with them.”

“If you’re not safe, you’re not going to be able to function and develop successfully in society,” she said. “(They need) to really experience that feeling of security when they’re in that classroom, when they’re in that center.”

Real progress can be made, she added, by actually “naming” racial trauma, by “not letting it be an elephant” in the room.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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