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African Americans and PTSD


In Chicago, 1,239 people have been shot this year. That is 390 fewer than 2017 and, still, according to a recent study, Chicago is only the 13th most violent city in America. When soldiers come home from war, there are many who experience varying degrees of PSTD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Their battered brains recall grim images of fallen comrades, and they’re haunted by the sounds of deafening explosions and the harrowing crackle of gunfire.

These visions cause an equal amount of trauma to African Americans that live in communities ravished by violence and moral turpitude. Gunshots often ring like doorbells across ghettos nationwide. Precious lives are routinely cut short, prompting the screams and tears of grieving mothers and fathers. Cities like Detroit, New Orleans, and Baltimore produce as much violence over the course of a year as Iraq and Afghanistan – it’s bedlam wrapped in hopelessness, fueled by unrelenting ignorance and apathy.

The underlying factor perpetuating this mayhem has deep roots in Black culture.

Though it’s not often addressed or treated as seriously by many African Americans despite countless studies, poor mental health may be the largest and most insidious threat to Black progress. It’s what caused a group of young hooligans to mug and kill 20-year-old rapper XXXtentacion last month at a motorcycle shop in Florida. It was the force behind a recent slaying in the Bronx, where five adult males dragged 15 -year-old Lesandro Guzman-Feliz from safety and hacked his body with knives and a Machete, spilling his blood as spectators watched from their balconies.

Senseless acts of violence occur with astounding regularity in neighborhoods populated by minorities, and occasionally the perpetrators have a shiny badge that protects them from consequences. While Black on Black crime is a serious and ongoing problem, the behavior of rogue law enforcement officials also poses a threat to African Americans. The slaughter of innocent victims and the unlawful harassment of others by bad cops is said by experts to perpetuate mental instability, fear and paranoia among persons of color, particularly the youth.

Exposure to trauma is high among African Americans who live in stressful urban environments. PTSD and depression are common outcomes of trauma exposure and are understudied in African Americans.

Until recently, researchers have associated PTSD with being a victim of trauma. Now, new findings from researchers suggest that the act of killing or perpetrating violence could be even more traumatic than being a victim.

Gangs and violence go hand-in-hand. For gang members, violence is a necessary evil – it helps them to build status and respect, and to exercise control over illegal drug markets. For young people, being involved in gangs poses a double threat: Not only are they more likely to be the victims of violence and crime, they are often made to prove their loyalty to the gang by committing violence against others.

There’s a two-way relationship between trauma and being part of a gang. Trauma increases the likelihood of joining a gang, and gang membership increases the risk of being exposed to trauma. Young people who associate with offenders or have issues with substance abuse are especially vulnerable to exploitation by gangs. When a young person joins a gang, they are exposed to the same sort of violence, victimization and neglect which caused their trauma in the first place.

Like child soldiers in countries such as South Sudan, young people in gangs are often forced or coerced into perpetrating violence against others through initiations, turf wars and ongoing gang activity. Initiations can include sexual assault and being the victim or perpetrator of violence.

Our Weekly spoke to “John,” an ex-gang member who agreed to speak as long as we concealed his identity.

“It [PTSD] affects a lot of the people I used to run the streets with,” John said. “Sometimes when I’m sleeping at night, I can see the faces of the people I’ve hurt. I can hear them trying to negotiate for their life … asking me for mercy. It’s also hard to spend time with my daughter outside because I’m constantly looking over my shoulder –just in case a nga  recognizes me from back in the day and wants to get revenge. I’m thinking of seeing a therapist or something, but niggas like me aint built to get emotional with nobody.”

PTSD is a distressing mental disorder that can cause anxiety, flashbacks and depression.

Bradley Cloud, a psychologist at Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services in Bakersfield said exposure to violence over a long period of time can cause symptoms resembling PTSD.

“When you think about what it’s like to live in a gang, under constant threat of being assaulted, injured, killed, having your friends, your family witnessing those events, hearing those events, it’s really natural for people to have trauma reactions to it,” Cloud said.

African Americans experience PTSD at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, according to a 2010 study from PubMed, the online archive of the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that Blacks may experience a specific type of PTSD (race-based traumatic stress) that is induced by repeatedly witnessing traumatic instances in person and via social media. Needless to say, when footage is released of a police shooting, watching it can trigger a particularly severe psychological reaction. Research suggests that for people of color, frequent exposure to the shootings of Black people can have long-term mental health effects.

“There’s a heightened sense of fear and anxiety when you feel like you can’t trust the people who’ve been put in charge to keep you safe,” explains Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville.“Instead, you see them killing people who look like you. Combined with the everyday instances of racism, like microaggressions and discrimination, that contributes to a sense of alienation and isolation. It’s race-based trauma.”

Racial trauma is expressed in many forms and often includes the same hyper-vigilance, increased aggression, and sensitivity to threats as traditional PTSD.

In a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the authors reported that 85 percent of the participants recalled being stopped at least once in their lifetime and 78 percent had no history of criminal activity. What is more concerning is that the study also found that those who reported more intrusive police contact experienced increased trauma and anxiety symptoms.

While research on the psychological impact of racism has only emerged within the last 15 years, Williams says it’s “now starting to get the attention that it deserves” and experts are “seeing very strong, robust and repeated negative impacts of discrimination.”

A 2012 study found that African Americans reported experiencing discrimination at significantly higher rates than any other ethnic minority. The study, which surveyed thousands of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans, also found that Blacks who perceived discrimination the most, were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD. Although African-Americans have a lower risk for many anxiety disorders, the study reported a PTSD prevalence rate of 9.1 percent in Blacks, compared to 6.8 percent in whites, 5.9 percent in Hispanics, and 1.8 percent in Asians.

PTSD is still best known as a psychological problem affecting soldiers and veterans. In fact, it can affect anyone who has experienced, or witnessed, traumatic events such as serious injury, violence, sexual violence or death.

Because PTSD is often viewed as something that affects soldiers, civilians may often fail to identify their own symptoms or to recognize that they are experiencing a known illness which can be treated. During World War I, for instance, having “shell shock” was seen as a sign of weakness and there remains considerable stigma around PTSD as well as other mental health conditions.

The cases of “urban shell shock” continue to cause havoc and disarray in our most vulnerable communities.