African Americans have endured centuries of harms that have recently boiled over into the events we have observed in the last couple of months, most notably the response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. What we are seeing is how the cumulative effect of these and many other deaths in the black community, along with issues such as systemic racism and discrimination, affects our mental health. As a person of African descent, I can attest to how witnessing the video of the deaths of Floyd and Brooks as well as the news stories that followed were simply the latest in a series triggering images that have left me emotionally shaken.

When looking at the history behind this collective trauma (defined as a traumatic psychological effect shared by a group of people of any size, up to and including an entire society) we can see how it traces back to 1619 when Africans were first brought to the United States, through slavery, followed by the impact of the Reconstruction era, lynching that endured (even until 1981), Jim Crow and most recently with police brutality and mass incarceration. This type of historical trauma is called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which was originally theorized by researcher Dr. Joy DeGruy. The result of PTSS is adaptive behaviors that are essentially survival mechanisms employed by African Americans which are passed down generationally.

These circumstances are all detrimental to mental health, however, due to the stigma associated with mental illness, many African Americans do not seek help. Also, a lack of mental health providers of color contributes to the reason why many are unwilling to reach out.

But over the last few years, I have observed a change in how African Americans look at mental health and how it is being more widely acknowledged as an issue that must be confronted. This is especially true for those who are younger and are more comfortable with discussing these issues. Also, behavioral health providers are engaging in cultural humility training to help therapists who may not be African American to not only learn about the challenges associated with being black in America but also gain a better appreciation for black culture.

In Western New York, many of the community-based behavioral health providers do have therapists of color. One resource to connect with these professionals is the Mental Health Advocates of WNY (mhawny.org or 716-886-1242). Their Information and Referral Department can offer suggestions on where people can go for help.

Additionally, there are national resources that focus on the mental health needs of African Americans. A comprehensive list can be found on the National Alliance of Mental Illness website.

As our nation grapples with its complicated past and uncertain future, all people must have access to the resources that can benefit their mental health. Our African American brothers and sisters need access to these supports as well as empathy and understanding to begin this healing process.

Karl Shallowhorn, M.S., CASAC is chair of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition and President and Founder of Shallowhorn Consulting.

He can be reached at karl@shallowhornconsulting.com

Karl Shallowhorn, M.S., CASAC
Chair of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition
President and Founder of Shallowhorn Consulting

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

A type of historical trauma that was originally theorized by researcher Dr. Joy DeGruy. The result of PTSS is adaptive behaviors that are essentially survival mechanisms employed by African Americans which are passed down generationally.

Collective Trauma

Defined as a traumatic psychological effect shared by a group of people of any size, up to and including an entire society.