PTSD and Black Lives Matter: Responding to the Trauma of the Racially Wounded

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is mental and emotional stress that includes characteristics of re-experiencing, and hyper arousal, which can lead to a significant disruption in one’s life. PTSD occurs after a person has been through shocking trauma. The bad experience that happened to you, in front of you, or around you, stays with you. You feel certain that the past will be your future, so you try to avoid any similar situation. If you cannot avoid that situation, your threat-detecting radar becomes hyper vigilant. The end result is exhaustion, despair, and fear. This past Sunday, I witnessed this on many of the faces of my elders and pastors.

PTSD is the natural response to the aftermath of your world being filled with uncertainty, constant stress, and volatility – either at one moment or over a duration of time. Nearly one in ten black men are found to suffer from PTSD, according to a national survey in 2009 (Himle et al, 2009), which is most likely a low estimate considering that most diagnosticians do not account for racism as a cause for trauma (Malcoun, Williams, & Bahojb-Nouri, 2015).  Smith et al.’s (2007) talk about racial battle fatigue in many African Americans, which is “the result of constant physiological, psychological, cultural, and emotional coping with racial microaggressions in less-than-ideal and racially hostile or unsupportive environments” (p. 555).

Sin and Trauma

One issue at the heart of racism is the trauma of sin. When sin entered the world, it brought on its heels a curse which affected every area of mankind’s life (Gen. 3). Isaiah 24:5 (MSG) says ‘Earth is polluted by its very own people, who have broken its laws, disrupted its order, violated the sacred and eternal covenant. Therefore, a curse, like a cancer, ravages the earth.’ Sin is similar to radiation poisoning, with its true affect often not evident for years, decades, or generations. I am currently witnessing the devastating effects of generations of systemic racism on the hearts and souls of my African-American brothers and sisters.

For myself and many other white Americans I speak with, the reality of the trauma spoken about in the protests, posts, articles, and interviews by many black Americans is foreign and difficult to understand. Thinking through my life, I have no experiences which parallel those of my African-American brothers/sisters – regardless of socio-economic status, education, geography, etc.

I simply cannot relate personally to their trauma, just as I cannot relate to the trauma experienced by my friends who have fought in Afghanistan, and I would be a fool to try and compare their trauma to my own. I am not saying I haven’t experienced pain or trauma – sin has wounded and infected us all – but I am saying that the trauma experienced by the African American and other minority communities is particular and unique.

As a counselor, I see the effects of trauma in the lives of my clients on a daily basis. Suffering and trauma effects the way we think about ourselves and others, the way we interpret relationships, the way we raise our children, and on and on. My eyes are opening to the particular effects of trauma on an entire community of my neighbors, friends, clients, pastors, leaders; with the only unifying theme being their race.

Towards Healing

Christ came to bind up the brokenhearted, announce freedom to the captives, comfort those who mourn, and rebuild mankind from the ruins. He said so himself in Luke 4 as he read from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1-4).

Starting in verse 4 of Isaiah 61, the tone shifts from the anointed one (Jesus) to them (His people), from Jesus doing the healing and freeing, to his people raising ‘up the former devastations’ and repairing ‘the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.’ God chose to do much of his binding up and healing through His Body, the Church. As the past and current effects (devastations) of the sin of racism, oppression, and violence continue working themselves out, we as the Body of Christ are called to seek healing for the other members of our body (Gal. 6:2), and mankind at large (Gal. 6:9-10, Rom. 8:18-21).

The question for many is how to go about doing so. How can I, as someone who has no personal context for what is happening in the hearts of my African-American brothers and sisters, do anything to bring about healing?

Be A Safe Place

Healing of PTSD comes about when the one effected by trauma is given a safe space to share the trauma without reliving it. Thus, healing comes in two parts. The first is in creating a safe place where black and brown skinned men, women, and children do not fear for their lives, or feel the pains of oppression due to their ethnicity. Love is never passive and always involves a choice. As I am no expert on how to do this, I come to places like RAAN, among others, for articles and advice.

The second part of healing involves listening without judgment. Seek to empathize and understand the stories of African-Americans. I write this to the public at large, but with other white believers particularly in mind. This does not mean that you must agree. Agreement and understanding are not the same thing; simply listen without judgment. Postpone your judgment if you must.

As you seek to pursue healing, here are a few tips on listening that I have found helpful in my work and life.

  • Rather than asking questions (such as asking ‘why’, which almost always encourages defensiveness), invite more process. Ask something like, ‘Help me understand what you mean by ___’. (1 Peter 3:8)
  • Mirror what you hear someone saying. “What I hear you saying is ____. Can you tell me more about that?”
  • Be curious. Seek to understand. Do not try to find out the ‘facts.’ Often in seeking to find out the facts, one causes more harm than help. Seek to find out the emotions by naming them and then trying to feel them. Empathy is feeling ‘with’ someone rather than ‘for’ someone. (Eph. 4:29)
  • You must be a safe person before someone is willing to be open and vulnerable with you. If you approach a black friend and ask them to be honest with you and they are unwilling, check yourself. (Phil. 2:1-11)
  • Do not shame. Do not blame. Do not belittle another’s experience. Even if you disagree, that does not matter. Their experience with trauma has nothing to do with your experience with race. (James 1:19)
  • Avoid giving advice or ‘trying to fix it.’ (Prov. 18:13)
  • Be ready and willing to serve through listening, when and how the speaker is willing. Do not demand for more, for closure, or for ‘moving on’. Healing often comes in fits and starts.

Henri Nouwen, in his book ‘Out of Solitude: Three Mediations on the Christian Life’ writes:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”