It was a comfortable summer night in West Philly.
I sat on my block eating ribs, laughing with family, and watching as my younger cousins playfully ran up the sidewalk. Old school music blared from the radio nearby. It was perfectly peaceful.
Suddenly the music was interrupted. The radio host gravely announced that the verdict was about to be read. I sat frozen—prepared for the worst, yet optimistic for the best. A few seconds later, my hope was shattered: George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
While I was mentally prepared for the verdict, I was not prepared for how I felt. My body was unnaturally tense. My head pounded and my chest tightened. All I heard thereafter was silence. Helplessness clouded my vision. Then came the tears that seemed to burn as they streamed down my face.
I felt everything, but, at the same time, it felt like nothing.
Why was I feeling this way? I prided myself on being an emotionally controlled person. Yet, I was no longer in control. I was also unprepared for the awareness that a new space had been created in my mind that night. It was a space of mental and physical distress that I would unwillingly revisit each time the news reported that, again, a person who looked like me was shot to death by those paid to serve and protect. It was a space that became stiller, colder, each time justice was not found. Though I had had my own personal encounters with racism, my mind always returned to that night in West Philly when a sense of connectedness to injustice made me feel others’ pain so keenly.
July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. The goal of the month is to improve access to mental health treatment and services and promote public awareness of mental illness among minority populations. I believe that one of the steps in meeting these goals is to acknowledge the psychological and emotional experience of racism and calling it what it is.
It was a colleague who first spoke to me about traumatic experiences and the effects they can have on mental health. Prior to this conversation, I did not know that the mental distress I felt concerning people whom I had not met had a name. Her words shed light into that dark space in my mind and prompted me to learn more. It’s a topic gaining attention among psychologists and researchers. Personally, it helped me to discover that what I had been experiencing had a precise name: racism-based traumatic stress.
Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a clinical psychologist specializing in the study of racism-based traumatic stress, explained the phenomenon well in an article last year addressing the horrible murder of nine people in a Charleston, SC church:
There are experiences of racism that are everyday micro-aggressions and these can have an overwhelming cumulative effect over time, but there are also single incidents that can overwhelm our normal capacity to cope and that can create traumatic stress. These traumas are sometimes referred to as intergenerational trauma, when we consider the generations that have been effected by the systemic and individual acts of covert and overt racism. Another term that is used in the psychological literature is societal trauma, which speaks to the violation of oppression. Additionally vicarious trauma occurs when we are not the direct targets, but are affected by hearing about it and in this digital age it can include seeing it directly or seeing the consequences of it live or online.
Bryant-Davis’s naming of “vicarious trauma” allowed me to understand that my headaches, chest pains, nausea, flashbacks, and restlessness were a common experience and a very real threat to my mental health. Knowing that there was a name for what I was experiencing freed me from the stress of obsessing about why I was not in control of my thoughts. It allowed me to move forward.
Self-care has been integral in my path toward healing. This has included allowing myself to cry, disconnecting from social media and news outlets, sharing my experiences with trusted friends, praying, exercising, and resting. Practicing self-care allows me to recharge so that I can continue the necessary work of dismantling the very system that allows racism-based traumatic stress to exist.