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Examining the intersection of race, trauma and mental health

Mayberry Health and Home

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Examining the intersection of race, trauma and mental health


It’s been a tough and complicated news cycle recently in Louisville. A white former metro police officer was acquitted of criminal charges in relation to the raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment. And a Black local activist and writer faces charges in the attempted shooting of a mayoral candidate. WFPL’s Yasmine Jumaa spoke with Dr. Stephen Kniffley Jr., associate professor of psychology at Spalding University, about the intersections of race, trauma and mental health. Here are some highlights from that conversation, which have been edited for clarity.

On the contrasting perceptions and responses to news of community violence based on race

Black people have an expectation of generalization. So when we watch the news, and we hear that there was a shooting, or a robbery, or some sort of violent crime, there's this collective prayer that comes out that says, ‘Please don't let it be a Black individual.’ Because we recognize that if indeed it is a Black person, we're on the hook for whatever crime or offense was created.

The science actually supports that. There was a study by Duxbury, and colleagues that found that if you look at the journalism that's out there, and the literature, that when a story is highlighted about a mass shooting related to a white individual, they're oftentimes overwhelmingly treated as victims and sympathetic characters. However, Black and Latino men are cast as these violent individuals. I think this is because we have this general expectation, even before a shooting is committed or a crime is committed, that there's this inherent deviancy that's connected to being a Black or brown person that is not associated with the white experience.

On separating historical trauma from current events, and how cultural narratives inform trauma reactions

Two specific forms of trauma that Black folks are exposed to: our generational traumas are those narratives that are passed down, that are designed to warn us about the dangers of being a Black individual, that leads to us having this higher alert all the time. And then this racial trauma, which is interpersonal in nature, that is designed to remind us that we don't deserve to be in certain spaces, or that the racism that we feel like we're encountering is not true, or that we are constantly exposed to the racism and discrimination that other folks are encountering.

There's this pretty significant public grieving process that we have, where we're constantly having to grieve with an audience, and this audience isn't just sitting there being witness to it. Instead, they're also offering their opinions about things and their thoughts that sometimes could be hurtful and harmful to us as we're trying to sort things out.

On the different forms mental health struggles can take and the impact of racial stereotypes and social stigmas on seeking treatment and getting proper diagnoses

I think about, for example, the experience with trauma, and how that can influence folks, and how important it is for us to realize that how one experiences that trauma can be different. And so for many of us, we are not doing the best job that we can to investigate the impact of things like trauma.

If I'm feeling a little sad, if I'm feeling a little anxious, I can kind of go fly underneath the radar without anybody really saying anything about it. So because we've been taught as a society that if I'm feeling these type of ways, that I just kind of bury it, and I just keep on moving, it doesn't receive the same understanding, the same compassion, the same awareness of the difficulties that it can pose for someone. Every single one of us is vulnerable at some point in time for the experience of a mental health related issue. A shift in your circumstances, the death of a loved one. And being in the midst of a pandemic can influence all of us. But we don't give a lot of space to that, because people have just been taught to go about their business, which means we typically don’t recognize when someone is struggling in those areas. We only really see mental health related issues when we see its behavioral manifestation, which is why oftentimes we misdiagnose depression and anxiety in Black males, because we only see the behavioral manifestation in regards to anger and aggression-related issues.

Sometimes, within our families, we often care so much that it hurts to see our loved ones struggling. And so we may be more likely to try to find ways to excuse it, or try to find ways to pretend like it doesn't exist. All that really does is that adds more to the hurt that we're actually looking to alleviate for our loved ones. So the first thing that we can do is be frank about it. So being willing to notice, frankly, what’s going on. And the next thing to do is to be willing to have a conversation where you invite the individual to share with you what's going on…and to be able to find resources to connect that individual to.

Dr. Steven Kniffley Jr. teaches multicultural psychology at Spalding University. He also directs the university’s Collective Care Center for Behavioral Health, an institute focused on healing race-related stress and trauma.

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