Black Mental Health Through The Storm
Alishia McCullough M.S., LCMHCA, NCC
People from all over the world, and specifically within my community are in pain, we are fed up, we are angry, the impact of this trauma cannot be intellectualized or articulated in a way that would accurately describe our experience. Many of us are grieving the lives taken by police brutality not only in recent events, but throughout our history. We are grieving for the lack of accountability and injustice that has existed for years. Many of us are also grieving the loss of our fellow black and brown people to colonization and white supremacy. I’ve had a’lot of folks reach out to me saying that they feel lost and are experiencing visceral responses to this daily trauma and injustice. I want to provide some context and support from a mental health lens, hopefully this will be beneficial to those trying to make sense of their experience and figure out what to do with all of the difficult emotions and physiological responses existing in their bodies.
Many black and brown people struggle with mental health concerns but our issues have been normalized within our community. It is estimated that “black people are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.” (ADAA). That means that the majority of us have or will experience depression at some point in our lives. Most of our experiences of mental health distress often go undiagnosed meaning it will be unseen or we will not be able to access treatment for it, or misdiagnosed meaning it will be misunderstood and/or mistreated in the mental health and medical field. Western mental health medicine and practice says that our mental health is impacted by the variations of three things, those include our biology, our responses to our environment, and biochemical imbalances in our brains.
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Biological (Epigentic Material): Relates to our chromosomes and DNA, and how those genetics are expressed in our bodies.
Responses To Our Environment and Socialization: This includes the family that you were born into. It is also includes education disparities, poverty, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, lack of access to healthcare, and employment barriers. As well as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Xenophobia, fatphobia etc.
Biochemical Imbalances: This is related to the neurotransmitters in our brain, our hormones, and the impact of 60+ chemical elements clashing together that ultimately make up the composition of our bodies.
Our bodies are complex and intricate!
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During this time, we are consuming a range of trauma, from the tragic video of George Floyd last moments, to daily trauma such as going back in forth with people on Facebook attempting to convince them of our lived experience and values. Most people are simultaneously struggling with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), compounded with daily Racial Trauma All of these things exist in us, and are consciously and subconsciously having an impact on our bodies.
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) include nightmares or unwanted memories of the trauma, avoidance of situations that bring back memories of the trauma, heightened reactions, anxiety, or depressed mood. This week, you may have noticed increased agitation, irritability, hostility, hyper-vigilance, self-destructive behavior such as binge drinking or increased drug use, isolation, anxiety, mistrust, fear, loss of interest in things you normally like, nightmares, guilt, feeling emotional detached or even unwanted thoughts.
If you are Black/African American and your ancestors were enslaved, you may be also dealing with symptoms of Post Traumatic Slave Disorder (PTSS). Symptoms of PTSS included anger, feeling on edge, hyper-vigilance, feelings of a shortened lifespan, irritability, shame, panic, depression, disconnection to self, confusion, humiliation, poor concentration, and intergenerational trauma (trauma that is passed on through your family due to the ways you were socialized). You may have also noticed an increase in alcohol and drug use. Many of our ancestors experienced PTSD, so we are dealing with both PTSD and PTSS.
Compounded with the daily Racial Trauma related to anger, fear, anxiety, depression, isolation, resentment, self-doubt, internalized racism and impostor syndrome as a result of living in a white supremacy culture governed by euro-centric ideals, included but not limited to racial harassment (racial slurs and microaggressions), witnessing racial violence, and experiencing institutional racism.
As we begin to look at how these factors fed off of each other, we begin to notice more about our current reality and why we are feeling fatigue, exhaustion, and burn-out etc. in times when racial tension and issues are heightened. This is why when non-black people say that they can relate exactly to our experiences as black people, what they are saying is not true. They can always empathize, but the enormity of what is going on and the overlap of these three things will never exist in their bodies and minds in the way that it has for us historically and presently.
Trauma shows up in our bodies in a variety of way. We may behave differently, for example Post Traumatic Stress Disorder could look like avoiding certain places, persistent negative thinking patterns, intense emotional responses, and intrusive memories/ thoughts. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome often contributes to internalized anti-blackness, code-switching, colorism, impostor syndrome, and the need to always be working to not be labeled as lazy. Racial Trauma can present as internalizing your emotions, isolating yourself, engaging in self-neglect, and low self-esteem/self-worth.
Physically it manifest in our bodies by increasing our cortisol levels (stress response) activating our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, fawn responses, and can produce panic attacks, shakiness, tenseness, restlessness, increased blood pressure, inflammation, numbness, headaches, fatigue, heart disease, diabetes, sleep issues related to insomnia and hyper-somnia, shortness of breath, depression, suicidal thoughts etc.
Typically we have been taught to cope with these symptoms in maladaptive ways, those include shutting down and internalizing our emotions, ignoring it by pretending that it’s not happening, spiritual bypassing, minimizing and invalidating our experience of the trauma, disconnecting from ourselves, avoiding it completely, silencing ourselves to avoid conflict, dismissing it off as something other than trauma, distancing ourselves from others, or numbing out through drinking, sex, or other distractions that do not tackle the real issues.
Because this has been our way of coping for so long within our families and within our communities, it has been passed down intergenerationally. These feeling and reactions have become normal. We think, “I have been dealing with it this long by myself, why do I need therapy”. We have been taught to “just pray it away”. We have become familiar with the pain and trauma that we are experiencing that we are not seeing the impact that it is having on our mental health, our families, and our communities. The system was set up this way and continues to profit off of our pain and ancestral trauma.
We Can Develop More Adaptive Coping Mechanisms By:
1) Acknowledging and affirming what we are experiencing, and giving ourselves permission to experience all of our emotions including but not limited to rage, sadness, fear.
2)Honor both our resilience and our pain (hold space in your body for both of these things to coexist)
3) Engage in ancestral healing and connection work. You can do this through racial storytelling, our ancestors were known for being oracle storytellers. Center their ancestral wisdom in your fight for liberation.
4) The process of naming your experiences can be very empowering, put a name to what you are going through.
5) Counteract the impulse to devalue yourself, externalize that devaluation, that is the narrative of the oppressor which is not yours to keep.
6) Attune and celebrate our rage because it is always communicating with us about our boundaries, and places in our lives where we need change.
7) Check in with your body and ask it what it needs, that may be a glass of water, or maybe it needs to unplug from social media and screen time. This is your self care! Un-clinch your jaw, relax your forehead, and release the tension between your brows.
8) Connect with nature! Nature is a powerful tool for healing, go for walks and hikes if you are able. Get a plant and tend to it as a way of feeling a sense of purposefulness and connection. Also just go outside and get some vitamin D (your immune system thanks you)
9) Get in community! Get with folks that share your identity and can relate to what you are going through!
10) Empower yourself by getting involved. Maybe this means you are organizing a protest, or engaging in some other form of anti-racism and racial healing work.
11) Rest! We have been trained operate on the go, but we never slow down and really give our bodies the chance to rest. Rest is restoration, and an essential ingredient to the work that we are doing. Your body needs to stop and recover.
12) Set boundaries. Understand the capacity that you have to support other people, identify your needs, and communicate your needs. We have to get comfortable with saying No. Protect your valuable energy and peace of mind.
13) Take your vitamins and drink your water!
14) Sing, Dance, Write, Draw, Listen to Music… Create. Find something that brings you joy and practice it on repeat.
15) Engage in deep and intentional breathing… there is an app for this called Liberate Meditation App and Calm.com
16) Do something grounding! When we are overwhelmed we are often feeling the intensity of our emotions and are also stuck in our heads. Ground yourself by practicing the 5 things activity, grab an ice pack to ground your body, place a hand over your heart to recenter your intention for self love, or buy some aromatherapy (Lavender is great for stress, but Cedar-wood is good for grounding i.e Atlas Ceder Oil)
17) Connect with your source, your source may be God or it may be someone or something else. Figure out what keeps you grounded, and carve out time to engage in that spiritual relationship.
18) Stop consuming trauma videos on social media. Sometimes we cannot control what we see, but if you are able, be intentional about the content that you are consuming. It is having an impact on your body. We don’t have to constantly see trauma to know that it exist.
19) Give yourself some compassion. We are all coping the best way that we know how with all that has been mentioned in, as well as, living in a global pandemic. You deserve a break, a vacation, a few hours of alone time to just exist. You deserve time to be gentle with yourself and your experiences. Practice that!
20) Last and most importantly, Get into some therapy! We can only help ourselves at the extent of our awareness, and often that awareness comes with blind spots. Get into some therapy, and talk to someone that can help you see those blind spots and help you create new ways of coping and addressing issues in your life. It may seem scary at first, but you’ve got this!
With love and light,
All of my insight and work has been influenced by the research and labor of Dr. Joy Degruy.