Racial Trauma and the Need for BIPOC Mental Health Support

First-gen Afro-Latina Dr

Racial trauma

Photo: Pexels/Photo by Liza Summer

First-gen Afro-Latina Dr. Angel Jones is an educator, activist, and critical race scholar whose research explores the impact of racism on the mental health of Black students with a focus on racial microaggressions, Racial Battle Fatigue, and gendered-racism.  

I am an educated, successful, loved, and proud Afro-Latina. I am also one of the 58 million people in the United States who struggle with their mental health. Contrary to popular belief, none of it is mutually exclusive. Mental health is not a monolith, and neither are the Latinxs who suffer every day from mental illnesses that often can go untreated or undiagnosed due to stigma, lack of access, language barriers, and a general distrust of mental health services among other reasons. Mental health remains stigmatized within BIPOC communities and issues often dismissed as “not real”, which is not only incorrect but potentially fatal as well. The truth is that 20.7 percent of Latinx adults experience mental illness and  21.4 percent of African Americans annually, and believing false narratives puts millions of lives at risk. When it comes to being both Latina and Black, I’ve learned that the continued impact of racism and anti-Blackness can and has taken its toll.

The Mental and Physical Impact of Racial Trauma

Mental health is a taboo subject, as is racism, which presents a unique challenge since there is a direct correlation between the two. Research shows that racism, including overt racial violence as well as microaggressions, negatively impacts our mental and physical health. Many of us struggle with what is known as Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF), a term coined by Dr. William A. Smith, which refers to the psychological and physiological consequences of experiencing racism on a consistent, prolonged basis. Some of the psychological symptoms of RBF include anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. There are also physiological symptoms which include elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and tension headaches. Dr. Smith’s research has found that we also have behavioral responses to experiencing racism such as withdrawal, isolation, and hypervigilance.

Unfortunately, a lack of knowledge coupled with the normalization of racism in this country has made it increasingly more difficult to identify when we are struggling with RBF or racial trauma. I will use myself as an example. For my Ph.D., I attended George Washington University, a private, predominantly white university in Washington, DC. It was a racially hostile environment where I often dealt with overt as well as covert forms of racism which caused severe symptoms of RBF including extreme anxiety, depression, headaches, soreness, and stomach pains. And even though I was researching racial microaggressions and RBF at the time, I was still unable to make the connection between what I was experiencing racially and what I was feeling physically. I convinced myself that everything I was feeling was just typical graduate student stress, but I was wrong.

It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital, and was forced to stop and pay attention, that everything became crystal clear. At the time, I had a professor that I dreaded interacting with because he often made racist comments. For example, he asked me about the data I was collecting for a research project on the impact of microaggressions on Black undergraduate women. I shared an incident when a participant’s African heritage was mocked in class by a group of white boys and the professor immediately started laughing. A story that brought tears to my eyes when I first heard it was now being laughed at by someone I was supposed to be learning from. On another occasion, we were in a meeting with all of the faculty and students in my program and he began to berate me in front of everyone. At one point he said, “I know I’m being hostile and aggressive towards you right now” but he kept on going. I just remember staring out of the window, fighting back tears, waiting for it to be over. I was always paralyzed by the fear of consequences if I responded, so I always kept my feelings inside.

My anxiety got so bad that every time I heard the email notification on my phone, my pacemaker (for a preexisting heart condition) would go off because I was afraid it was a message from him. Dealing with that every day eventually became too much for my heart to handle and I passed out, which is consistent with the negative physiological consequences of RBF (elevated heart rate and blood pressure). The ER doctor agreed with what my therapist had been telling me for months – I needed to minimize my stress. The problem was, I had been trying to lessen my school-related stress but had no idea how to control the race-related stress I was also experiencing.

Barriers Latinxs Face in Getting Help

I am very transparent about my mental health and openly share my struggles on social media. I have gone on Instagram Live to talk about my history with an eating disorder, I post often about my current battle with depression, and I am also open about the treatment I receive through therapy and medication. However, this was not always the case. I used to be part of the 64 percent of Latinxs and 61 of Black adults who have a mental illness but do not receive treatment. Not to mention that according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness there’s an 11-year gap between the symptom onset and treatment. Although there are reasons that explain low treatment-seeking behavior across all racial groups, stigma and the lack of cultural competence among mental health workers are two major and consistent barriers among Latinxs.

The Stigma of Mental Illness within the Latinx Community

Although mental health affects our overall well-being just like our physical health does, it is often not given the same attention or consideration. Instead, of being approached as a health concern requiring medical treatment, mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness and incompetence. Going to the doctor for a physical ailment is deemed responsible behavior while seeing a therapist for emotional pain is accompanied by judgment and shame. This stigma manifests itself uniquely in the lives of Black and Latina women because of the multiple systems of oppression that already cause us to be perceived as less-than or inferior. Common gendered-racial microaggressions experienced by BIPOC women are ones that question our intelligence and capabilities.

I am often reminded of an interaction I had during my undergraduate program. As I was walking into my political science class, a white male student said “oh, African American Studies is next door.” Later in the class, after I answered several questions, he whispered to a classmate and said “she’s pretty smart for a Black girl.” He assumed I didn’t belong in that space and also assumed I couldn’t contribute. When you’re already challenged by a false narrative that portrays you as unqualified, the last thing you want to do is add to it by being open about your mental health struggles. Many of us don’t get help because of the silencing impact of stigma.

Representation and Cultural Competence

Another barrier to receiving mental health support is a lack of representation. In 2021, although 32 percent of the population identified as Black and/or Latinx, we only represented 13 percent of psychologists in the U.S. Dealing with the racial trauma caused by white supremacy and systemic oppression is hard enough without also having to figure out how to explain your experiences to a white therapist. This becomes especially challenging when the therapist is culturally incompetent and unaware of the psychological consequences of racism. With these healthcare providers, microinvalidations (microaggressions that minimize or attempt to invalidate our experiences) are common.

Members of our community are less likely to seek treatment from someone who denies the severity of their trauma while simultaneously adding to it. I am passionate about mental health support because it has saved my life. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I wouldn’t be here without therapy and medication. I also wouldn’t feel as seen and valued as I do if my therapist wasn’t a Black woman. I am also open about all of it because I know transparency can save lives. However, while I have focused on two specific obstacles that exist for Black and Latine people who need mental health treatment, I want to make it clear that there are several others. Among these are a lack of resources, financial inaccessibility, and language barriers. Ignoring the prevalence of mental illness in our communities, as well as the role of racism in our experiences, is irresponsible and dangerous. Inaction is deadly, so when we say Black Lives Matter, it needs to include an acknowledgment of everything that puts our lives at risk.

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