As a therapist, you’re going to have clients who struggle with racial trauma.
When you’re attacked or discriminated against because of something so tied to your identity and so inseparable from who you are as a human being, that pain lasts. These experiences build and change your outlook on life. They contribute to learned helplessness (Why bother trying?), deep anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use disorders.
Not every experience of racism is traumatizing. An incident is more likely to have a lasting effect if the racial stressor is particularly intense, if it happens frequently, or occurs at a time when your client is dealing with other emotional or physical vulnerabilities.
Dr. Carla Smith (Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT) defines racial trauma or race-based traumatic stress as the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crime.
Racial stressors can be experienced directly or they can be vicarious, like the George Floyd murder or when Asians experienced verbal and physical attacks during the shutdown because “COVID-19 came from China.”
These incidents create an environment in which a person feels unsafe because of the color of their skin and their ethnic background.
Our first role is to provide a safe space and a strong therapeutic alliance so healing can happen.
Asking may seem like it’s opening up a wound, but it's not. Taking about it acknowledges that it’s there.
Ask your client if they’ve experienced racism and if it plays a part in the challenges they’re currently experiencing. An accepting, open question opens the door to creating a safe space.
Especially if you’re white, you might have been conditioned to “not talk about things like that” or make it an issue. “Be colorblind.”
But the reality is, people who are a minority for whatever reason – color, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. are always aware of what makes them different and vulnerable.
Consider using an assessment to identify your client’s symptoms and severity. The Trauma Symptoms of Discrimination Scale (Williams, et al, 2018) or the Race-Based Traumatic Symptom Scale (Carter, et al, 2013) are two options of many that can help you identify the trauma and know what direction to take as you develop a treatment plan with your client.
Addressing race-based trauma requires a sensitive and supportive approach grounded in cultural humility, trauma-informed care, and evidence-based interventions.
Structural factors include geographic and economic elements that prevent a person and their family from the right jobs, a good school, a safe neighborhood, and ways to take advantage of opportunities.
History is pretty blatant. We live in a country with a history of slavery, segregation, and immigration discrimination, just to name a few issues. It’s important to be aware that not only do our experiences shape us, but so do the experiences of our ancestors. That’s part of a trauma-informed perspective.
It’s always important to make the therapy space a safe, supportive environment that promotes healing and recovery. In the case of trauma, which is more common than we used to assume, you’re focused on building trust so you and your client can work together to address the underlying pain behind their symptoms and behavior.
Avoid trying to “get at the truth” or offering another interpretation. Reframing a racial trauma can be retraumatizing because it feels like you’re questioning your client’s reality or defending the perpetrator’s behavior.
Allow the pain to be the pain.
Do you feel like you want to explore more about trauma-informed care, cultural bias, and racial trauma? Motivo Learning offers courses on these issues and so much more—and you can earn continuing education units as you learn.
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