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Sharp Health News

Understanding Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

June 19, 2020

Dr. Monica Hinton, a behavioral health therapist with Sharp McDonald Center.
By Monica Hinton, a social worker at Sharp McDonald Center and president of the San Diego Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi).

The recent civil unrest in response to ongoing racial injustice in the U.S. highlights the entrenched trauma that African Americans have experienced and carried across generations.

We are especially reminded of this trauma during the month of June, which marks the anniversary of Juneteenth and the Massacre of Black Wall Street.

Juneteenth is the day that all slaves were freed in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers entered Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were free. This was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which is commonly cited in history books as the end of slavery.

The Massacre of Black Wall Street was another historic event that caused enduring damage – both economically and psychologically – to the African American community. It remains the deadliest recorded act of racial aggression in U.S. history.

On June 1, 1921, white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, ignited two days of unparalleled racial violence against the town's prosperous African American community, following the accusation that a Black man had attempted to rape a white woman. The entire community was set on fire, leading to 300 deaths, 800 injuries and thousands left homeless.

An enduring impact
How do these events connect to African Americans' physical and mental health?

They add to Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), a term coined by internationally renowned researcher Joy DeGruy, PhD, to describe the multigenerational trauma and injustices experienced by African Americans – from the dawn of slavery to the recent deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police.

PTSS has similarities to the more widely known diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They include:
  • Avoiding certain places, people, or activities and events that may remind the individual of the trauma or experience.
  • Difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy or being easily angered.
  • Appearing emotionally numb, also called "vacant esteem" – this includes feelings of hopelessness, depression and a general self-destructive outlook.
An aspect specific to PTSS is racial socialization and internalized racism, which includes the direct and indirect messages children receive about racism and the meaning of race.

Unfortunately, when it comes to seeking medical or mental health assistance, African Americans are often suspicious of the care they will receive, and therefore, may only go to the doctor as a last resort. Historically, African Americans were mistreated at the hands of the medical profession, including being used as test subjects. Treatments have been based upon the belief that Black people are strong and do not need health care, or that Black people have higher rates of schizophrenia than white people or other ethnicities.

However, if you are feeling symptoms of PTSS, it is important that you break the cycle of our history and seek the support you deserve from mental health professionals who care.

Juneteenth and Black Wall Street are both events to be remembered as not just African American history, but American history. It is important to recognize the resiliency of African Americans throughout the past 400 years of slavery and oppression, but also the emotional scars that our community still feels.

If you or someone you know is struggling, Sharp Mesa Vista can help. Learn more about Sharp Mesa Vista's trauma and PTSD recovery program, which offers evidence-based integrative recovery services in a structured setting, or call 858-836-8434.

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