Can Racism Cause PTSD?


depressedmaleAllen was a young African American man working at a retail store. Although he enjoyed and valued his job, he struggled with the way he was treated by his boss. He was frequently demeaned, given menial tasks, and even required to track African American customers in the store to make sure they weren’t stealing. He began to suffer from symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of humiliation. After filing a complaint, he was threatened by his boss and then fired. Allen’s symptoms worsened. He had intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and jumpiness – all hallmarks of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Allen later sued his employer for job-related discrimination, and five employees supported his allegations. Allen was found to be suffering from race-based trauma (from Carter & Forsyth, 2009).

Epidemiology of PTSD in Minorities

PTSD is a severe and chronic condition that may occur in response to any traumatic event. The National Survey of American Life (NSAL) found that African Americans show a prevalence rate of 9.1% for PTSD versus 6.8% in non-Hispanic Whites, indicating a notable mental health disparity (Himle et al., 2009). Incresed rates of PTSD have been found in other groups as well, including Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islander Americans. and Southeast Asian refugees (Pole et al., 2008). Furthermore, PTSD may be more disabling for minorities; for example, African Americans with PTSD experience significantly more impairment at work and carrying out everyday activities (Himle, et al. 2009).

Racism and PTSD

One major factor in understanding PTSD in ethnoracial minorities is the impact of racism on emotional and psychological well-being. Racism continues to be a daily part of American culture, and racial barriers have an overwhelming impact on the oppressed. 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 (Carter, 2007).Chou, Asnaani, and Hofmann (2012) found that perceived racial discrimination was associated with increased mental disorders in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, suggesting that racism may in itself be a traumatic experience.

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