Trauma, Mental Health Awareness, and Systemic Racism

Written by Addison Duane

May is Mental Health Awareness month.

There is an abundance of research investigating the relationship between trauma and mental health.

In my work, I love to use Dr. Judith Herman’s definition of trauma from her 1992 book “Trauma and Recovery”. She writes that trauma can make a person feel powerless by an overwhelming force:

“When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning. …Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.” (p. 33)

Trauma can affect how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others.

Experiencing trauma can be connected to a host of mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and increase risk behaviors like substance or alcohol abuse and more.

But it’s also important that we nest these mental health challenges within our broader sociopolitical realities. The trauma that individuals and communities experience do not occur in a vacuum— they are situated within unequal and oppressive societal contexts. For example, a 2019 study found that youth who were stopped by police reported heightened emotional distress and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Taken together with the new statistic that in 2021, California police stopped Black youth six times more the rate of White youth, it is clear that trauma, racism, and the cascading mental health impacts are inextricably linked.

As we think about Mental Health Awareness month, let us also acknowledge that the mental health challenges in our world may be linked to traumatic experiences. And we can also consider the ways that trauma stems from inequality and centuries of systemic oppression, and continue fighting for a world that advances racial justice and equity-centered trauma-informed practice.

For more information on trauma and healing please visit our resources on our website.