To Heal Traumatized Communities, Fight Oppression

Many have watched horrified as the Trump administration escalated its attack on undocumented people. Some 800,000 young people, the vast majority of Mexican descent, will be affected by the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This and many of the other human rights violations — the Muslim ban, gutting of the Affordable Care Act, increased militarization of police, open support for white supremacists, and the list goes on — committed by the current administration have led, by many measures, to an increase in anxiety, stress, suicides and depression since the election.

In this political climate, undocumented people, people of color, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and low-income people — many of whom are survivors of trauma and live with its effects daily — are exposed to even more traumatic events with a shortage of resources to heal. As a mental health practitioner who specializes in trauma in marginalized communities, I cannot keep up with the frequency and level of trauma surfacing in both my professional and personal life.

How do we get to the bottom of the issue of trauma in our society with so few mental health resources? We won’t be successful until we address it at the root.

Inequity and oppression are at the root of what we now codify and understand as “trauma.” A stressful or threatening experience becomes traumatic when we become overwhelmed and are unable to integrate or make sense of the experience. One of the biggest protective factors to prevent a threatening or stressful experience from developing into trauma is the love and support of our family and community. When our communities are resourced, whole and healthy, we are more likely to have the resilience to withstand tragedy.

In what can be considered a vicious cycle, oppression itself — racism, ableism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia — can cause trauma. Black psychologists are among those who have conducted research and written about the traumatic effect of racism on Black Americans. Dr. Monnica Williams’ work on race-based stress and trauma and Dr. Ken Hardy’s work on healing racial trauma, substantiate what we already suspected: White supremacy is a traumatic experience.

Most people are aware that women and LGBTQ people experience high rates of violence, harassment and yes, trauma. One of the most overlooked communities — people living with disabilities – suffers from violence, its effects multiplied as it intersects with other systems of oppression. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics most recent data, people with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to experience violence than their non-disabled counterparts.

For marginalized peoples, family and community are two of the most important protective factors to counter the effects of trauma. Family stability and nurturing relationships can provide us with the container to heal from threatening and stressful experiences. These connections can literally mean that a person will not experience the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) even after living through violence, abuse and tragedy.

Mass incarceration and mass deportation very clearly seek to destroy our ties to family and community. Earlier this year, a story in The Hill about the physical and mental health impacts of mass deportation revealed that three-fourths of undocumented parents reported their children had symptoms of PTSD. With the repeal of DACA, mental health practitioners are organizing to respond to the increase in trauma that is sure to follow as families prepare for the worst.

There have been a number of public conversations about how inaccessible mental health resources are in general. But especially for people of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities and poor people, the cost of mental health treatment can be out of reach. Moreover, marginalized communities continue to lack providers of mental health treatment from their communities. For those who do have access to treatment, many reported negative experiences from providers, unable, because of their training and personal biases, to relate to and treat clients dealing with the trauma of oppression and inequity.

To be sure, there will continue to be instances of tragedy and stress that do not appear to be directly related to oppression, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and their aftermath. And yet, many who are calling for a Just Harvey Recovery are aware that the impact of natural disasters is not doled out equally and neither are the resources needed to recover. This reality means that even trauma caused by changes in climate are also inextricably linked to oppression, and unequally affect those who live in the most vulnerable or dangerous of circumstances.

We will never see an end to trauma until we recognize that oppression not only increases our risk of experiencing it, but also interferes with our ability to recover from experiences that are compounded by that oppression.

While investing in culturally relevant and trauma-informed care is an important step to eradicate the prevalence of trauma in our society, it will only apply a Band-Aid to a wound much deeper — the ways systems of oppression are engrained in our institutions and in the very ways we communicate and relate.