Interview by JENNA WORTHAMJUNE 24, 2015
Our screens and feeds are filled with news and images of black Americans dying or being brutalized. A brief and yet still-too-long list: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride. The image of a white police officer straddling a black teenager on a lawn in McKinney, Tex., had barely faded before we were forced to grapple with the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C.
I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who are stressed out by the recent string of events; our anxiety and fear is palpable. A few days ago, a friend sent a text message that read, “I’m honestly terrified this will happen to us or someone we know.” Twitter and Facebook are teeming with anguish, and within my own social network (which admittedly consists largely of writers, academics and activists), I’ve seen several ad hoc databases of clinics and counselors crop up to help those struggling to cope. Instagram and Twitter have become a means to circulate information about yoga, meditation and holistic treatment services for African-Americans worn down by the barrage of reports about black deaths and police brutality, and I’ve been invited to several small gatherings dedicated to discussing these events. A handful of friends recently took off for Morocco for a few months with the explicit goal of escaping the psychic weight of life in America.
It was against this backdrop that I first encountered the research of Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities. Several years ago, Williams treated a “high-functioning patient, with two master’s degrees and a job at a company that anyone would recognize.” The woman, who was African-American, had been devastated by racial harassment by a director within her company. Williams recalls being stunned by how drastically her patient’s condition deteriorated as a result of the treatment. “She completely withdrew and was suffering from extreme emotional anxiety,” she told me. “And that’s what made me say, ‘Wow, we have to focus on this.’ ”
In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Williams wrote that “much research has been conducted on the social, economic and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color.” Williams now studies the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is known as race-based traumatic stress injury, or the emotional distress a person may feel after encountering racial harassment or hostility. Although much of Williams’s work focuses on individuals who have been directly targeted by racial discrimination or aggression, she says race-based stress reactions can be triggered by events that are experienced vicariously, or externally, through a third-party — like social media or national news events. She argues that racism should be included as a cause of PTSD in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.).
Williams is in the process of opening a clinical program that will exclusively treat race-based stress and trauma, in a predominantly black neighborhood in Louisville. Shortly after the Charleston shooting, I called Williams to discuss her work; what follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
What is race-based stress and trauma?
It’s a natural byproduct of the types of experiences that minorities have to deal with on a regular basis. I would argue that it is pathological, which means it is a disorder that we can assess and treat. To me, that means these are symptoms that are a diagnosable disorder that require a clinical intervention. It goes largely unrecognized in most people, and that’s based on my experience as a clinician.
What are the symptoms?
Depression, intrusion (the inability to get the thoughts about what happened out of one’s mind), vigilance (an inability to sleep, out of fear of danger), anger, loss of appetite, apathy and avoidance symptoms and emotional numbing. My training and study has been on post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time, and the two look very much alike.
Over the weekend, I received several distressing emails and texts from friends who were suffering from feelings of anxiety and depression. Do you think we should all be in treatment?
I think everyone could benefit from psychotherapy, but I think just talking to someone and processing the feelings can be very effective. It doesn’t have to be with a therapist; it could be with a pastor, family, friends and people who understand it and aren’t going to make it worse by telling you to stop complaining.
What do you think about the #selfcare hashtags on social media and the role of “Black Twitter” as resources for people who may not have the resources they need to help process this? Are online interactions like that more meaningful than they initially might seem?
Online communities can be a great source of support, of course — with the caveat that even just one hater can be stressful for everyone, and that’s the danger of it. But if you don’t have a friend or a family member, just find someone who is sensitive and understanding and can deal with racial issues.
In our initial email about the ripple effects of the murders in Charleston, you used the phrase “vicarious trauma.” What does that mean?
Because the African-American community has such a long history of pervasive discrimination, something that impacts someone many miles away can sometimes impact all of us. That’s what I mean by vicarious traumatization.
Is racial trauma widely recognized as a legitimate disorder?
The trauma of events like this is not formally recognized in the D.S.M. It talks about different types of trauma and stress-related ailments, but it doesn’t say that race trauma can be a factor or a trigger for these problems. Psychiatrists, unless they’ve had some training or personal experience with this, are not going to know to look for it and aren’t going to understand it when they see it. In order for it to be recognized, we have to get a good body of scientific research, a lot of publications in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Right now, there’s only been a few. And we need to produce more.
On your blog, you chronicled the experience of a woman who encounters a therapist who dismisses her fears about racism. Is one barrier to treatment getting the medical community to acknowledge that racism exists?
Yes. A lot of people in the medical community live very privileged lives, so racism isn’t a reality to them. When someone comes in and talks to them, it might sound like a fairy tale, rather than a real daily struggle that people are dealing with. Research shows that African-Americans, for example, are optimistic when they start therapy, but within a few sessions feel less optimistic and have high early dropout rates. It could be that clinicians don’t know how to address their problems, or they may even be saying things that are subtly racist that may drive their clients away. If the patient feels misunderstood or even insulted by the therapist and they don’t go back and get help, they end up suffering for years or even the rest of their lives for something that is very treatable.
Is there a recommended model for treatment?
We have great treatments that are empirically supported for trauma, but the racial piece hasn’t really been studied very well. That’s no easy task, because when we write these articles, they go to journals, where an editor looks at it and decides if it’s worthy and applicable to go in the journal. And then it goes to reviewers who decide if it’s a worthy and applicable topic.
Why has it taken so long to get momentum?
If you think about it, they weren’t even letting black people get Ph.D.s 30 years ago in a lot of places. Ethnic minority researchers are the ones who are carrying the torch, by and large. We’re only to the place now where we have enough researchers to do the work. And there’s so much work that needs to be done.