About eight million adults are living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the U.S. during a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and this only represents a small portion of people who have gone through a trauma.
PTSD, a condition that occurs after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event—whether it's war, sexual assault, a tragic accident, or racial trauma—can affect anyone, regardless of their background. However, mental health challenges are often stigmatized, which prevents too many survivors from seeking the help and treatment they need.
That's why it's so important to raise awareness of PTSD. June is PTSD Awareness Month, and June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day. Both events are intended to keep this mental health condition in the public conscious and to provide a pathway for trauma survivors to access care and treatment that could improve their quality of life.
Putting a Spotlight on PTSD Awareness
PTSD Awareness Month, which began in 2014, calls on supporters and survivors to help the public and themselves understand and address PTSD. This might include taking an online course or program to learn more about PTSD symptoms, checking in with a veteran or loved one who has been diagnosed with the condition, sharing content about PTSD on social media, or even hosting a virtual event to spread awareness of PTSD.
PTSD Awareness Day began in 2010 when U.S. Senator Kent Conrad pushed for a day of national awareness in honor of National Guard Staff Sergeant Joe Biel, who died by suicide after two tours of duty in Iraq. PTSD Awareness Day occurs every year on Biel's birthday, June 27. Like PTSD Awareness Month, this day focuses on raising the public's knowledge of PTSD and its treatments so that people who have the condition feel encouraged and supported to seek help.
Both of these national awareness events center on veterans, and rightfully so. Many service members have made significant sacrifices to defend the freedoms we often take for granted, and many come back with scars we don't see. PTSD Awareness Month and PTSD Awareness Day help veterans access quality care and treatment.
However, these awareness events also provide an opportunity to help a wider range of people who have experienced traumatic events, including civilian survivors of sexual assault, serious accidents, natural disasters, systemic racial injustice, and racial trauma.
What Is Racial Trauma? Understanding Its Connection to PTSD
As the mental health field has evolved, so has our understanding of different forms of trauma. Racial trauma, or race-based stress, is a relatively new term within the mental health space. However, its symptoms often resemble PTSD, says Dr. Charmain F. Jackman, a Harvard-trained psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in the mental health field.
"It can look like having a fear response to a trigger. For example, many people who look like me may say that driving by a police car, or a police car following them, will elicit that fear response," she says.
Jackman adds that trauma can have significant psychological impacts that show up in the form of avoidance and anxiety, which can impair how people function in their everyday lives, whether that means not showing up for work or taking severe steps to avoid certain triggers.
Police brutality, workplace microaggressions, and systemic inequality can all contribute to racial trauma, so addressing it requires different approaches. Jackman says it's critical to increase awareness of racial trauma to help those who experience it, as well as their communities, cope with it better.
"In order to heal from trauma, we need to understand what it is. Now that we're able to name racial trauma as a phenomenon that exists for people who are experiencing racial injustice and racial discrimination, that's a start," Jackman says.
The Path to Healing Racial Trauma
Jackman, who is also the founder of InnoPsych, an organization with a mission to disrupt racial disparities in mental health, says it's critical to remove the stigma around mental health issues and expand access to treatments. It's not just about talking to a therapist or taking medication, either: Physical movement, such as dance therapy, yoga, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR), may also be effective PTSD treatments.
"By creating InnoPsych, my goal is to change the conversation and change the negative messages about therapy and mental health. When people of color say, 'therapy is not for us,' that message cuts them out from resources that can contribute to their healing ... healing not just for the individual, but for communities and for the next generation," Jackman notes about addressing racial trauma.
Education is also key — not just for those who experience racial trauma, but for anyone with a vested interest in eradicating racial violence and discrimination from society. Jackman says people can start getting involved by learning more about racial trauma so that they can engage in conversations about racial trauma from an informed position.
She recommends "My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies," by Resmaa Menakem, and "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing," by Dr. Joy DeGruy, as two resources that can help people develop a better understanding of the psychological and physical impacts of racial trauma.
"We're all triggered by racial trauma," as Jackman notes, so taking the time to educate ourselves about this issue can provide more context around what this trauma is, how it takes shape, and how it shows up in our everyday lives.
Trauma is often invisible, and far too many people suffer in silence. By raising awareness of the various forms of trauma we all experience—during PTSD Awareness Month, PTSD Awareness Day, and beyond— we can reduce the stigma around mental health issues and help millions of us be healthier in mind, body, and spirit.
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