This is America: Black and constantly traumatized

Jacque Palmer, USA TODAY
·9 min read

I half-jokingly-half-seriously asked on Twitter last week: "So where do I send these therapy bills to?" while in the middle of witnessing the chaos ensuing in front of my eyes at the U.S. Capitol.

We all watched as police officers opened the gates for the insurgents and allowed them to get closer to the Capitol building, took selfies with them and handled their bodies with care. A stark reminder to Black people all over the world that we don't get the same treatment.

Last week's events were an assault on American democracy but it also felt like another attack on Black and brown people. And although the House impeached President Donald Trump for a second time, it doesn't change the circumstances for underrepresented people.

So, what are we to do? How are Black people in America supposed to keep our bodies and minds safe while watching events like last week unfold? How do we unpack this collective and complex trauma?

I'm Jacqué Palmer, a senior newsletter strategist at Gannett, and you're reading "This is America," a newsletter about race, identity, and how they shape our lives.

A trigger warning before I continue: I'm going to recount what I experienced during the events that took place at the Capitol last week, and that might be triggering for some of you, so please feel free to sit this one out.

But first: Race and justice news we're watching

Important stories of the past week, from USA TODAY and other news sources.

Sick and tired of being sick and tired

Watching the Capitol attack was like watching a slow-moving car crash. You know it's happening, you can't do anything to stop it, and you're praying no one is injured.

I had to keep reminding myself to breathe in order to combat the constant fight-or-flight feelings I experienced. I had the living room TV on mute, listened in on a Clubhouse room where Black journalists were processing in real-time, and simultaneously participated in three different group chats.

I slowly felt my body going into survival mode. First, my heart rate increased, then my brain became foggy, and finally, I floated into an active state of disassociation – I had to clock out of work early.

(Keep in mind I have been meditating for over a decade, as well as leading community sound meditations for the past two years.)

The effects of racial trauma are not something you can intellectualize or wish away because you're exhausted, overwhelmed, and drained of the constant anxiety and brain fog.

Last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a compilation of research findings on the effects of racism, trauma and chronic stress on the health of Black Americans. One of their key findings said "the stress and trauma of racism and its manifestation affects victims and witnesses; individuals and entire communities ..." and that "... those who have been directly victimized are likely to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Complex and historical, intergenerational trauma are retriggered by these events."

Being Black in America is killing us, and through it all, surviving – because it's what we do. Is our ability to adapt by normalizing constant exposure to trauma helping us? Do we need to leave America? Alia Dastagir gave us tips last week on coping with anxiety and fear post-insurrection. What about minorities who are at an increased risk of exposure to traumatic events?

I asked three therapists who work within Black communities for their professional opinion on how to do that. (Some answers have been shortened for brevity.)

Asha Tarry, Certified Life Coach, LMSW
Asha Tarry, Certified Life Coach, LMSW

📛 Name: Asha Tarry, CLC, LMSW

📍 Location: New York, N.Y.

📚 Currently Reading: "Your Grief, Your Way" by Shelby Forsythia

This is America: What advice would you give to a Black person who witnessed the insurgence, and is now thinking their life does not matter and will not be protected in this country?

Asha Tarry: I don't have advice for that. Black people are well aware of where they live. Sometimes, just like other dissonant and dissociative people, people need reminding. What's harmful is to believe it only when you see it. I would encourage Black people to (plan) for long-term care including if that means doing what some of my clients are doing which is becoming dual citizens in other less toxic places in the world. Black people are reading about these things in historical texts, sharing books in book clubs, talking about it in social spaces where they feel safe and thankfully, some are becoming expats outside of the U.S. For other people, it may be important to become or remain politically involved in their local communities, which has afforded people in the past to open small businesses that serve the interests of our people. Collective empowerment often heals people.

TIA: How does a person of color navigate the barriers of being Black in America and thrive?

Tarry: One of the ways I've found helpful in my own journey is doing a lot of self-exploration. For some people that may come by way of reading and traveling so you learn the history that was not explained or provided in your early childhood education. Be inquisitive and investigate what people say to you or what the news reports. Never take things at face value. Instead, be willing to investigate what you hear and how it impacts the ways it affects your livelihood, including how you engage with the world.

So, as an example, do you tend to not speak up at work because you feel isolated or unsupported? Do your boss or coworkers seem to stereotype you or make it seem as though you are invisible, or your knowledge is limited to stereotyped things? If so, this may mean you have to establish safe alliances with like-minded individuals inside or outside of work. You may also need to seek emotional support from professional groups who focus on workplace stress and coping skills. Or seek a mentor or a therapist to help you role play your responses. The more support you build around yourself, the safer you may feel emotionally and mentally.

Devon Lewis-Buchanan, MSW
Devon Lewis-Buchanan, MSW

📛 Name: Devon Lewis-Buchanan, MSW

📍 Location: Las Vegas, Nev.

📚 Currently Reading: "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

TIA: What's your advice for Black parents on how to speak to their children about last week's insurgency on the U.S. Capitol?

Lewis-Buchanan: As a parent, I would try to be as transparent as possible while still considering the age and development of your child. Children are very vigilant and are watching us and how we respond more than they may watch the major news outlets. Be aware that they may be afraid too and may not truly understand why they feel the way they feel. As adults, we can give children the permission to feel what they are feeling and the language that they may not have yet developed.

TIA: What are the ways that we can get past the stigma of mental health issues in the Black community? How do we encourage therapy?

Lewis-Buchanan: Stigma around mental health in the Black community many times is reinforced by the stories we don't share of our own personal struggles. I'm not saying you have to share these stories with the entire world but sharing is a way to help to normalize the conversation around mental health.

As a therapist and advocate for therapy, I also believe that therapy isn't a cure. Therapy however is a great tool and can be very beneficial along with other tools and practices that can help reduce negative symptoms of mental health. In other words, it doesn't always have to be therapy to be therapeutic.

Shirley Dorsainvil, Psychotherapist, MFTI
Shirley Dorsainvil, Psychotherapist, MFTI

📛 Name: Shirley Dorsainvil, Psychotherapist, MFTI

📍 Location: Orlando, Fla.

📚 Currently Reading: "The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health" by Rheeda Walker

TIA: As a couple's therapist, how has racial trauma affected your patients and how are you helping them overcome it?

Dorsainvil: The majority of my clients had a horrible time navigating their livelihood during such a high racial climate. The best we know how is showing unconditional positive regard, empathy, providing coping skills, providing tools to overcome the emotions and to explore the emotions.

TIA: How can Black and brown people in American cope with racial trauma?

Dorsainvil: They can turn to spiritual practices, like prayer, mindfulness, or the use of mantras. They can put the anger into social justice movements, or advocacy and create something that helps with racial injustices. I advise a support group or seeking therapy to resolve their past, present, and future concerns with the racial trauma. Even, identifying the trauma.

TIA: Is there anything else you'd like to share about Black mental health in America as it pertains to exposure to trauma?

Dorsainvil: People need to begin admitting that they are traumatized by the systemic racism in this country. This country denies our identity and has stolen it. It's time to reclaim it.

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In a nutshell, yes, racism is very real and has Black and brown folk out here in a never-ending episode of "Lovecraft Country." But we are resilient and when we make a shift in our perspective, prioritize our mental health, self-care, and community we are able to navigate this ugly truth in a way that is not beating us down and getting the best of us but making us stronger.

I don't say that to minimize the difficulties of living in constant trauma, but to hold space for you right now, right here, in this little corner of the internet so that you know you are not alone, and together we can get through this.

I'll leave you with these accessible mental health resources shared by Asha, Devon, and Shirley in case you're in need of community and/or therapy:

Please take care of yourself, and don't forget to breathe.

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Jacque Palmer is a Sr. Content Strategist for Gannett and Sound Healer at Pop-up Sound Bath. Contact her at jpalmer@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter @msjacquepalmer.

This is America is a weekly take on current events from a rotating panel of USA TODAY Network journalists with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. If you're seeing this newsletter online or someone forwarded it to you, you can subscribe here. If you have feedback for us, we'd love for you to drop it here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black and constantly traumatized: This is America