Category Archives: Section 3

Racism and Trauma

In Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War, Abramowitz emphasizes the presence of trauma as it exists in the larger context of war conflict.  Her exploration of trauma is unique because, by focusing on war conflict, she talks of a disturbance that is inherently discrete in its timeframe–in the case of the Liberian Civil war, approximately a decade.  But, what happens when that phenomenon of rupture is spread over a longer breadth of time, perhaps centuries?  Is trauma as Abramowitz defined it applicable to long internalized conflicts, such as racial conflict?

Abramowitz defines trauma as “what happens when pervasive violence and vulnerability lead to profound experiences of rupture.”  This indicates that trauma can be triggered by physical and nonphysical impetus and by first hand or indirect manners.  Monica Williams in the NPR article argues that it is this vicarious nature of trauma that allows us to understand racial conflict as a harbinger of trauma.  Speaking as an expert in mental health disparities, Williams says, “We hear in the news about African-Americans being shot in a church, and this brings up all sorts of other things and experiences.  Maybe that specific thing has never happened to us. But…we know people in our community, and their stories have been passed down. So we have this whole cultural knowledge…[that] sort of primes us for this type of traumatization.”  From William’s work, we can extrapolate that the recent media focus on black brutality must be having significant, collective effects on the mental health of the African American populace.  Moreover, second-hand traumatization, such as the overwhelming presence of police officers in the predominately black community of Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting, can only exacerbate vulnerabilities felt by African Americans.

Nevertheless, second-hand trauma is not a recent experience for African Americans.  Despite contemporary media attention to the phenomenon of black inequality, social disparity has long been the narrative of Africans in America ever since the establishment of the slavery enterprise in the late 17th century.  Over centuries, social hierarchy based on race has been so ingrained in the U.S. that it has become the exemplar of social reality (see Smedley and Smedley).  Therefore, not only is society trained to exhibit certain behaviors to African Americans, but also African Americans naturally internalize and reflect such socially-engineered prejudices. Carl Bell, the former CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, suggests that as a result of this institutionalized racism, African Americans must endure speckles of microaggression during their day to day lives.  Overtime, these microaggressions build and build and essentially pull away the individual from his place in society.  As the social fabric ruptures, racism as a whole has an individual & very personal traumatic effect on the African American.

The difficulty with attributing the racism experience to traumatization (as proposed in the NY Times article and the NPR article) ) is that the event of “violence and vulnerability” is not always immediate or readily apparent.  For instance, in chapter 3 of her book, Abramowitz cites Suah, the Liberian director of an international NGO.  Suah claims that the Liberians present in the country during the war were physically marked by trauma.  On the other hand, those who were removed from the incident, such as refugees and Liberians living outside the country during the war, looked significantly “younger, healthier, happier, and fatter.”  This essentially begs the question: where is the empirical proof that racial conflict can cause trauma, especially when experienced second-hand?  Moreover, how can racism, which is often exhibited in contemporary society as underlying rather than overt, be linked to mental health of African Americans with certainty?  The fact is that connecting racism to trauma is difficult especially with the dearth of research.  Perhaps the even bigger worry is whether we need to understand the trauma in its larger context to treat the trauma.

Outside Sources

Corley, Cheryl. “Coping While Black: A Season Of Traumatic News Takes A Psychological Toll.” NPR. NPR, 02 July 2015. Web. <http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/07/02/419462959/coping-while-black-a-season-of-traumatic-news-takes-a-psychological-toll>.

Hu, Elise. “The Psychological Effects of Seeing Police Everywhere In Ferguson.” NPR. NPR, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366611989/the-psychic-effects-of-seeing-police-everywhere-in-ferguson>.

Wortham, Interview Jenna. “Racism’s Psychological Toll.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 June 2015. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/magazine/racisms-psychological-toll.html>.

Class Readings

Abramowitz, Sharon. 2014. Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Ch. 3)

Smedley A. and Smedley, B. 2005. Race as Biology is Fiction, Racism as a Social Problem is Real: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives on the Social Construction of Race. American Psychologist 60(1): 16-26.

Discussion Questions

1.  Does trauma exist within a well-defined “time frame of injury”?

2.  Should/can race-based trauma be recognized by the DSM(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)?

3.  Perhaps for a second we conclude that race-based trauma should be recognized. According to Williams, race-based trauma should be treated pathologically with clinical interventions. Do you agree?  Or is this just analogous to the case of infectious disease in which intervention (i.e. vaccination) does not really change the course of the culprit at hand?

4. Considering the lack of sufficient research on trauma and racial conflict, in what ways can the evidence behind race-based trauma be strengthened?

Trauma and Violence

It goes without saying that trauma and violence  can cause a serious toll of psychological effects on the human mind. It is unfortunate that there are so many people living with mental illnesses in the world we live in today, although the price to help these people is relatively cheap. Day-in and day-out, there are millions of people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet there are not enough facilities and organizations to help these people deal with the troubles of their past.

Recently more than ever, the world has experienced and witnessed this problem first-hand. There are approximately twelve million Syrian refugees who have been traumatized from the Syrian War going on in their home country. According to Dr. Peter Henningsen, there are three major traumatic backgrounds for those who have recently fled the country of Syria: those who have been involved in the Syrian War, those who are refugees, and those who are arriving in a foreign country after witnessing what has been going on in their homeland. Not only have these Syrians witnessed the war, but the majority have also been victims of violence themselves (Gregoire). If they haven’t been feeling the effects of mental illness already, these Syrian refugees are going to start developing symptoms of serious mental health illnesses soon.

As Paul Farmer states in his book, Reimagining Global Health, mental illnesses are usually underdiagnosed, and the resources to deal with these issues are “disproportionately low to the amount of people suffering” (Farmer et al, 213). With all of these traumatized refugees entering countries that don’t have enough resources to deal with all of the Syrian’s problems, how will this affect the refugees who are seeking help? According to Sharon Abramowitz in her article, Searching for Normal in the Wake of the Liberian War, she claims that the typical path of a traumatized person who has witnessed a war goes as follows; they are normal, then they become traumatized, then they become totally insane, and then they die. This idea of a refugee’s path after war seems rather morbid and hopeless, because Abramowitz conducted her studies in Liberia, where the resources to help these people were virtually non-existent. However, the countries that the Syrian refugees have come to since their escape are more likely to have the ability to put the refugees on a hopeful path.

Another aspect of the article by Abramowitz that will prove to be important in the coming months and years for the Syrian refugees is her claim that there is a triangulation between trauma, drug addiction and psychosis. As noted in the Huffington Post article by Gregoire mentioned above, at least one half of the twelve million Syrian refugees are children. These children have witnessed an intolerable amount of violence in the short amount of time they have been alive, and some have probably witnessed the killings of their own parents and family members. It will be extremely important for the countries that have taken in these children to guide them to a life without drug abuse. Some of these refugees may find that using these drugs may give them a high that helps them escape their past for some time, like the story we read of Valentine from Liberia in the Abramowitz article.

As Dr. Priscilla Daas-Brailsford mentions in the Huffington Post article, the focus of these countries will be to help cure the physical injuries and infectious diseases of the refugees, leaving many of the mental illnesses overlooked. A statistic that shows just how serious and necessary mental health care is for these Syrian refugees comes from this article as well: “Dietrich Munz, president of the German chamber of psychotherapists, estimated that while 3,000 to 4,000 psychotherapy sessions are offered in German refugee camps each year, the demand may be twenty times higher.” With statistics like this, it is essential for doctors, politicians, therapists, and everyone in these welcoming countries to do everything they can to prevent these mental illnesses from damaging the minds of the poor refugees even further. As evident from the Syrian refugees’ situation, trauma and violence can cause serious psychological issues in those who have witnessed war. The idea of mental health illnesses is becoming more and more acknowledged, but there needs to be far more resources to help those suffering from these diseases.

Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think is necessary to ensure that the mental health of Syrian refugees do not become damaged any more than it already has? Does this matter fall in the hands of politicians? Doctors? Surrounding countries?
  • As we have seen in the news recently, many countries in Europe have closed their borders due to the large number of Syrian refugees who are looking for safe places to enter. Do you believe that these countries should close their borders?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/refugee-crisis-mental-health_55f9b694e4b00310edf55c73