A Closer Look at PTSD

A Closer Look at PTSD

Chrysalis Foundation staff had the remarkable opportunity to attend the 2019 Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Symposium: Move Passion to Progress. We ran out of paper for note-taking, as every workshop and presentation further opened our eyes to the ongoing challenges for persons of color in our community.

One particularly powerful workshop entitled “Trauma and Race,” delivered by Breanne Ward, opened with an expanded definition of PTSD – we’ve known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Recent research by Dr. Joy DeGruy has further defined the roots of race-based trauma in African Americans as a historical phenomenon termed Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome – and she authored a book with this title. Its origins began centuries ago: from the beginnings of American slavery until the ratification of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) in 1865, “Africans were hunted like animals, captured, sold, tortured, and raped. They experienced the worst kind of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse…and continued subjugation through Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, peonage and convict leasing, and domestic terrorism and lynching have resulted in unmeasured injury.”

Ward defined trauma as something “done to you without your permission and leaving you to deal alone with what has been done.”  For Black people, the trauma of slavery has never ended, she explained – and generation after generation has passed its effects down with no intervention or understanding. “Symptoms specific to race-based trauma include avoidance of white people, fears and anxiety in the presence of law enforcement, paranoia and suspicion, and excessive worry about the safety of family and friends,” shares Dr. Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville.

Here is how Dr. DeGruy explains: ‘Innocent and angry little boys threatened by a glance; proud parents reluctant to praise their children and feeling the need to inhibit their natural exploratory instincts; friends not being able to celebrate the successes of their peers; organizations torn asunder from within . . . and there’s more. Parents feeling the need to protect their children from the police. Issues of skin color and hair texture continuing to dominate discussions regarding beauty and physical preference. The excessive focus on material accumulation. People needing, wanting and dreaming, yet fearing they will not succeed. Most of all frustration. Frustration and anger, at times even rage, feelings that seem to dominate many of our lives. If you’re black and living in America, none of this may be news to you.’


While racial oppression has left a psychological and mutigenerational impact on Black people, it also leaves a genetic and biological imprint - embedded in the DNA – that transfers through generations.  Much like current research about the long-term effects of prolonged trauma, populations have experienced changes in the brain that lead to wide-ranging symptoms of trauma: memory problems, emotional outbursts, irrational decisions, and hypervigilance.


Concluding her workshop with some practical tips to improve race relations, Breanne Ward provided recommendations to improve communication:

  1. Practice open expression of feelings
  2. Communicate views honestly
  3. Demonstrate self-control and respect for others
  4. Keep your own rights in mind while respecting others’ views
  5. Be specific in your statements
  6. Try to go to the source of the conflict or misunderstanding
  7. Use “I” statements when stating your own feelings or views

For Chrysalis, this information amplifies our awareness of the range of traumas girls and women experience, regardless of race, culture, or ethnicity. We work to educate grantees and school program leaders about these challenges to better equip them in their work. State and national awareness and ongoing research of “ACEs” – adverse childhood experiences – continues to help us better understand and educate family, friends, and peers about the effects of trauma in our society.

If you’d like to read more on Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder, click here.