Racial Trauma and the Mental Health of Ethnic Minority Communities

July is recognized as Minority Mental Health Awareness month. While there have been numerous articles and critical analyses published in recognition of Minority Mental Health Awareness month, i.e., the importance of culturally-tailored mental health treatment, barriers to treatment, the impact of stigma, etc., there is one topic that warrants but has received very little attention—the effects of racial trauma on the mental health of ethnic minority communities.

According to Erlanger Turner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, “Racial trauma is experiencing psychological symptoms such as anxiety, hypervigilance to threat, or lack of hopefulness for your future as a result of repeated exposure to racism or discrimination.” I remember vividly visiting the makeshift street memorial for Mike Brown, which was in the neighborhood and exact location where his body fell following the fatal police shooting that ended his young life at the age of 18 on August 9, 2014. Aside from the emotional distress that I was personally dealing with surrounding that tragic case, there are two things that are indelibly etched in my memory from that visit to Ferguson. The first is the heavy and thick grief that filled the air combined with the hollow stares that pained the faces of many of the community members who congregated at the memorial. The second thing I will probably never forget is a statement made by one of the community members who said “We are now left wondering how to and if we will ever heal. Everyone is coming here except mental health experts.”

Mike Brown’s case, as tragic and troubling as it is, is not unique nor is it unfamiliar to many ethnic minority communities. There is a long death registry with the names of Black, Hispanic/Latin, Muslim, Asian, and Native Americans whose communities have felt the devastating blows of racial trauma including homicide by law enforcement (e.g. Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Stephon Clark, Keith Lamont, Jonathan Ferrell, Philando Castile, Soheil Majarrad, among many others); suspicious deaths of loved ones while in custody (e.g. Sandra Bland, Jesus Huerta, and LayLeen Polanco); and rogue vigilante violence (e.g. Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride’s cases).

These traumatic and dehumanizing experiences have often leftentire communities in perpetual states of bereavement. According to the US DHHS, Office of Minority Health data (2016), adult Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites.

Traumatic events happen in every community; however, it is the frequency and high visibility of racial trauma inflicted upon ethnic minority communities that places their mental health at risk of trauma’s corrosive effects. In some instances, as the adage goes, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” members of ethnic minority communities exhibit remarkable resiliency by turning their trauma into powerful movements, actions or organizations e.g. the Black Lives Matter Movement or The Lighthouse
in Raleigh which was founded by the family of the three young Muslims Deah Barakat (age 23), Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha (age 21), and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (age 19) gunned down by a white male in Chapel Hill NC on February 10, 2015.

It is important to understand the consequences of being targets and victims of racial trauma. We must consider not just PTSD (post-traumatic stress) but what Dr. Averette Mhoon Parker once labelled as DOTS (daily ongoing traumatic stressors). As an African American woman who grew up in the south, my grandmother would always say “If it ain’t one thing it’s another.” In many ethnic minority communities, racial trauma is ubiquitous and permeates many aspects of our lived experiences.

The daily ongoing traumatic caused by pervasive and persistent racial traumas can have a weathering or corrosive effect on the mind and body.

“Geronimus 2 proposed the “weathering” hypothesis, which posits that Blacks experience early health deterioration as a consequence of the cumulative impact of repeated experience with social or economic adversity and political marginalization. The stress inherent in living in a race-conscious society that stigmatizes and disadvantages Blacks may cause disproportionate physiological deterioration, such that a Black individual may show the morbidity and mortality typical of a White individual who is significantly older.” Geronimus, Hicken, Keene and Bound (2006)

Let’s make a commitment to work together across communities and the artificial lines that divide us– race/ethnicity, gender or sex identities, socioeconomic status—to create solutions to the drivers of racial trauma. And in our quest, let us not be afraid to “call a thing a thing,” not to demonize any one group e.g. police but to validate and begin the recovery and healing process from the pain and suffering that many ethnic minority communities are experiencing as a result of racial trauma.


-Michelle Laws, PhD
July 25, 2019