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Race-Based Traumatic Stress is a Serious Mental Health Concern Within the Black Community

Lancaster, CA.-For many people within the Black community, racial trauma – or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS) – is a mental health condition that can have significant health consequences if left untreated. RBTS refers to the mental and emotional injury an individual may develop after having experienced racially charged discrimination and/or harassment.


With July recognized as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, Kaiser Permanente is raising awareness about mental health issues facing underrepresented groups, including the Black community,  and the importance of seeking timely treatment when needed.


“The tragic death of George Floyd ignited a global movement against racial injustice, shedding light on the deep-seated systemic racism faced by the Black community,” said Chidi Njoku, director of  Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center.


“Beyond the immediate tragedy, this incident drew attention to the pervasive and lasting impact of racial-based traumatic stress on the mental, emotional and physical well-being of individuals in the Black community. The events that followed helped create a unique moment in history, a time where the traumas within our communities were being acknowledged like never before.” A few years removed from the murder of George Floyd, those same struggles remain even though the emphasis is not quite at its same fervor.”


You can’t understand the true impact of racial-based traumatic stress without first acknowledging the historical roots of racism and its continued effects in the Black community, Njoku said. “Centuries of slavery, discrimination, segregation and systemic oppression have shaped the experiences of individuals within the Black community, resulting in a persistent trauma that extends across generations,” he said. “The post-George Floyd era serves as a reminder that the fight against racial injustice is ongoing.”

According to Njoku, racially based traumatic stress inflicts significant psychological and emotional harm on many within the Black community. Constant exposure to racially based discrimination and other dysfunctional behaviors motivated by unconscious bias creates a chronic state of vigilance and hypervigilance. This prolonged stress can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health challenges. The burden of constantly navigating racially charged environments can take a severe toll on the overall well-being of individuals and communities.


The impact of racial trauma extends beyond mental and emotional health, Njoku noted. Research demonstrates a correlation between experiences of racial discrimination and various physical health problems, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and overall diminished physical health. The constant strain on the mind and body resulting from racial-based traumatic stress contributes to health disparities and reduced quality of life within the Black community.


According to PEW Charitable Trusts, racism is a contributor to a public health crisis. It noted Black women are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than White women. Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as white men. The average life expectancy of Black Americans is four years lower than the rest of the U.S. population.


“It is our social responsibility to pay attention to the impact of racial-based traumatic stress,” Njoku said. “The path to healing begins with acknowledging the existence of racial trauma and providing safe spaces for individuals to share their experiences. Culturally sensitive mental health services tailored to address racial trauma are crucial for promoting healing and resilience. Additionally, implementing systemic changes such as addressing institutional racism and promoting inclusivity can help prevent future racial trauma.”


For many, acts of racism and/or microaggressions are an unfortunate part of their daily experience in life. “If you have experienced the previously mentioned symptoms in a way that feels unmanageable, you’re more than likely suffering from a race-based traumatic stress injury,” Njoku said.

It’s important to seek help when facing mental health challenges – including those caused by racial trauma, Njoku said. If left untreated, these symptoms can worsen and cause severe problems to your overall health. A lack of trust or belief in mental health has historically been a barrier to people in the Black community. In response to this reality there has been significant work to increase access to providers that represent that community and raise cultural sensitivity of providers that are not of the Black community so as to create more inclusive spaces for those in need of treatment.


“A person with good self-care routines that seek a balance between mental, physical, social and spiritual spheres in their life is doing well for themselves,” Njoku explained. “Neglecting or ignoring these areas will often create a domino effect in other spheres and will likely have a negative effect on your overall mental and physical health.”


Knowing when to seek help

Njoku encourages members of the Black community to seek help if they’re experiencing any of the Race-Based Trauma symptoms at a level that’s affecting their ability to be effective in their life. These include work or school performance not going well. When it comes to mental health, individuals should prioritize themselves and not listen to the stigmas or any other detractors that would discourage them from getting needed support.

Race-Based Traumatic Stress is a Serious Mental Health Concern

Within the Black Community


“If you’re too anxious or depressed to advocate for yourself, it’s okay to lean on someone you trust for support to get the help you need,” Njoku noted. “Remember: As scary as it may feel, one of the most courageous things you can do is take the time to invest in yourself by seeking help.”



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