Overcoming Systemic Trauma: Healing the Hurting Among Us

By June 7, 2020May 28th, 2024Mental Health
Overcoming Systemic Trauma: Healing the Hurting Among Us | Villa Kali Ma

“At times or most times, I find being black means being forced into a small
tight space and being told that I cannot come out until I conform to
a way that makes a predominately white society feel comfortable.”

—  Rachel James-Terry

To begin, this article is not a first-hand account of what it’s like to be an African American or any other minority in America. This article cannot describe or even touch on the felt experiences of those who were born with a skin tone other than white in this country with its long history of racism and white supremacy. Instead, this article is meant to be an account of the odds stacked against generationally traumatized people, especially people of color, and an attempt to bring light to the systemic trauma that is so prevalent in minority communities, and the oppressive system in place that prevents forward progress.

For those who once considered racism to be dead in America, recent events in the news have surely begun to convince them otherwise. We are not beyond the effects of slavery, segregation, the Jim Crow laws, white supremacy, redlining, gerrymandering (among other means of keeping black people from voting), mass incarceration of people of color, racially-targeted drug wars, and clearly, of police brutality.

Each of the above issues represents key threads that make up the very fabric of those in the African American and other racially marginalized communities’ lives. Together, they weave into a narrative of Historical Trauma that mental health professionals and researchers describe as the lingering effect caused by the traumas inflicted on groups of people because of their race, creed, and ethnicity. The persistent cycle of systemic trauma can destroy families and communities as it passes down to the souls of their descendants and often disrupts the vitality of entire cultures.

“The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away
his hands, stand back and say ‘look at what they’re doing to themselves.”

—  Jessica Gourneau, Ph.D.

Systemic Trauma Can Lead to Addiction in Adulthood

While there are many different types of traumatic events that cause extreme stress and difficulty for those who endure it, there is a particular burden that stems from growing up black or brown in a predominately white society. In such a case, you will come to understand and the phrase “white privilege”.  While obviously not all people born with white skin have “white privilege”, a disproportionate number of whites do have a significant advantage over minority races in America. Namely, whites in America are exposed to significantly less systemic trauma growing up than Black or Hispanic children and most systemic trauma or PTSD that affects these children goes untreated.

So often, what this means is that as a person of color, you cannot expect to have the same opportunities that the majority of white people are born with and take for granted. Black, Hispanic and other minority races not only experience underrepresentation in nearly all sectors of today’s society, they can also expect to earn less than a white person would for the same job title. The majority of people of color will be challenged to overcome numerous environmental stressors that stem from growing up in families, homes and community environments that were not able to provide consistent safety, comfort or protection.

Black and Hispanic households have an extreme disadvantage compared to white families in America when it comes to ability to create wealth, own homes, buy health insurance or save money for retirement. Due to a long history of employment discrimination and lack of stable jobs, good wages, retirement benefits, and ongoing mortgage discrimination, these disenfranchised families are subjected to a damaging cycle of wealth inequality. In the year 2016, white families in America had a median wealth of around $171,000 compared to approximately $18,000 for African American households and $21,000 for Hispanic households.

If you were born black in America, you are almost 3 times more likely to grow up in a broken home being raised by only one parent then if you were born white. African American children are also more likely to grow up in impoverished neighborhoods, are more likely to witness domestic and physical violence, and thus are forced to develop the “survival skills” necessary to adapt and keep going. What we know about these survival skills is that while they may be helpful to us initially, down the road they hinder our ability to experience healthy attachment with others.

Black and Hispanic Americans are also more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans. In 2017 there were about 476,000 incarcerated adult African Americans compared to 436,000 adult white Americans however, black Americans only made up 12% of the entire adult population in the United States but made up more than 50% of the incarcerated population. All of these “layers” of traumatic events, being invasive and interpersonal in nature, have long-lasting effects.  Most notably this includes a greater chance of struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, chronic physical illness, depression and anxiety, domestic violence, divorce, financial difficulties and low self-esteem.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study

In 1995, a joint effort from the CDC and Kaiser Permanente resulted in the creation of a large-scale ACE study which is a simple 10-item questionnaire that completely changed the way the medical community viewed the impact of these early childhood experiences. The study looks at three sets of questions highlighting abuse, neglect, and household challenges that an individual faced, and compared them to health outcomes later in life. What they found was groundbreaking: (source)

    1. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of adults surveyed have at least one ACE.
    2. ACEs have a significantly significant correlation with chronic disease (cancer, diabetes), infectious disease (HIV, STDs), injury and maternal health as well as mental illness (depression, anxiety, suicide), problems with addiction, and lost education or career opportunities.
    3. If you have one ACE, you are 87% more likely to have two or more.
    4. The more ACEs you have, the greater your risk for the abovementioned negative outcomes.
    5. It doesn’t matter which four ACEs a person has; the harmful consequences are the same:
      Those with an ACE score of 4 are two times more likely to smoke and seven times more likely to abuse alcohol. This same score increases the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent and indicates that these individuals are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, experience more depression, and more autoimmune diseases.
    6. Those with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.

The fundamental understanding of the ACE study lies in the simple truth that greater exposure to negative events in childhood increases the risk of negative outcomes later in life. This data cuts across disparities in wealth, age, and race in producing the same negative outcomes. However, unsurprisingly, in America, one in three black children have experienced two to eight ACEs in their lifetime, compared to only one in five white non-Hispanic children. For all children, the most common ACE is the divorce or separation of a parent or guardian, however, unique to the black experience is the second most-likely ACE: parental incarceration.

A Closer Look at the Criminal Justice System

Let’s look at one small piece of the puzzle. While it’s documented that both white and black individuals engage in drug offenses at roughly the same rate (whites perhaps even more than blacks) black individuals are incarcerated 10 times more often. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that due to this, “there are more black people under the control of prison and corrections departments today than were ever enslaved by this country”.

In addition to this practice of selective enforcement on drug laws, and favorable sentencing for white people, our criminal justice population in general is made up of people with histories of childhood systemic trauma, abuse, and neglect. Children who were physically abused are more likely to turn around and do the same, as those who were neglected are also more likely to be later arrested for a violent offense. Thus creating a cycle that continues to repeat itself.

Whether the reason for parental incarceration is petty drug crimes or serious offenses, children left without available caregivers add to the growing number of ACEs they will experience in their lifetime. Imagine the widespread impacts of this alone. These children may grow up, become offenders themselves, and pass on this pattern to the next generation. This is a chronic system that keeps churning out the same results, year after year. Thousands of traumatized people, forced to live in a broken system, it’s no wonder we have again begun to shout, “no more!”.

What Can We Do About It?

One approach that might be helpful is to focus on healing.  Rather than taking up resources in state and federal prisons for people who are incarcerated on non-violent or drug offenses, maybe what these individuals need is to be treated for trauma. Maybe what these children need are safe caregivers with whom they can develop a secure attachment. Maybe what our country needs is to heal from the horrors our silence has brought upon our black brothers and sisters.

We’re all contributing to the problem. However, with the courage to do some self-assessment, to avoid the pull to numb and to pretend that it has nothing to do with us, we may realize that we can actually be a part of the solution. If you are not already familiar, consider this your call to action to get to know the history of what has led to the recent riots against police violence and current #BlackLivesMatter protests in America and around the world. Take time to educate yourself and understand how this problem is affecting all lives in America and how important it is that we all play our part to change it.

We can learn the truth of our country’s history and what is going on today. Here are some recommended documentaries to get you up to date on the systemic trauma being caused by racism, a biased judicial system and police brutality which steep through the lives of families and communities and perpetuate continued suffering for generations.

We can use our voice and our vote to join those seeking justice. We can look beyond what’s happening on the streets and on social media and seek to understand the hurt beneath. Ultimately, we can see these protests for what they really are: the cries of a hurt and traumatized community, demanding their pain be recognized and acted upon.

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