The impact of psychological trauma on the lives of Black males

The impact of psychological trauma on the lives of Black males Martin Pierre, Ph.D. 
© 2018 

The experiences of sexual abuse and trauma related stress have a profound impact on the psychological functioning of African-American youth in general and Black males in particular. The impact of psychological trauma exacts its toll on both the physiological and psychological functioning of Black males. This trauma presents a major obstacle significantly affecting any attempts to re-establish equilibrium. Trauma-induced behaviors are often the response to ecological systems that offer no means for managing one’s emotional state. African-American males often live in environments riddled with violence and other forms of chronic stressors that impact their psychological well-being (Kulka, Schlenger, Fairbanks, Hough, Jordan, Marmar, Cranston, 1990). Furthermore, racism and discrimination may exacerbate trauma related symptoms and influence the development of maladaptive behaviors and poor health outcomes. 

Black males in American society have been marginalized and seen as deviants. Although, Black males comprise of a relatively small portion of the American population (less than 6 percent), they occupy a large space within the American psyche and imagination. Historically, Black males have been the target of negative media stereotypes and objectification. In film and literature, they are depicted as villains, conmen, deviants, hypersexual, sociopathic and buffoons. 

The mental health statistics of Black males are equally alarming. Suicide rate of Black males 18-24 years have surpassed that of White males in the same age group since 1980 

(National Research Council, 1989). This statistic is particularly alarming because historically, Black men exhibited lower rates of suicide than any other demographic group (Gary, 1981). Moreover, being an ethnic minority in American society is a risk factor for traumatic stress.  This is largely because racial/ethnic minorities are more frequently exposed to events that produce post-traumatic disturbance. In other words, the higher rate of PTSD in this demographic group is unlikely due to an intrinsically lower ability to hand less stress, but rather, as a result of broad social factors like racial inequality. It is of particular importance to note that these individuals are more likely to experience trauma than their white male counterpart (Alim, Charney, Mellman, 2006; Penk, Robinowitz, Black, Dolan, Bell, Dorsett, Ames, Noriega, 1989), Lawson, 2000). 

Sexual abuse is one form of chronic stressor that often goes underreported due to the stigma and shame associated with gender role norms and masculinity. Child victims often delay disclosure of sexual abuse and often avoid telling because they are afraid of a negative reaction from parents or being harmed by the abuser. Research suggest that 1 in 6 Black boys report childhood sexual abuse, 26% were between the ages of 12-14 and 34% were younger than 9 years old (Child Maltreatment, 2009). 

The movie 'Precious' highlighted the sexual abuse of African-American teenagers in its depiction of a 350-pound illiterate teenage girl who is pregnant for the second time by her father and horribly abused by her mother. More recently, the film 'Moonlight' depicts a coming of age story of a young Black man growing up in Miami. His developmental journey to manhood is guided by violence, pain, the beauty of falling in love and coming to grip with his own sexuality. However, what is absent in these narratives and other movies is the chronic and complex sexual abuse often experienced by young men of color. 

When youth are exposed to reminders of painful and unspeakable events, they tend to behave as if they were traumatized all over again. Their behaviors are often misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed by mental health providers. Alarmingly, teachers, administrators, law and court officers often label their behaviors as oppositional, defiant, acting out, impulsive, problematic, truant and delinquents. However, many problems of these young African-American males can be understood as an effort to minimize objective threat and to regulate their emotional distress. 

When teens and adult males are unable to achieve a sense of control and stability as a result of negative life experiences (e.g., childhood sexual abuse), they become helpless. If they are unable to identify their importance, how their life is meaningful, and make desired changes, they often may go immediately from stimulus (fear) to response (fight/flight/freeze) without implementing effective coping strategies that allow the production of adaptive behaviors. Thus, unless mental health providers understand the context and meaning of these behaviors within a trauma informed lens they would continue to provide inadequate and unethical care. 

Culturally responsive treatment approached must incorporate several factors. Treatment should account for a neurobiological system that has been altered by traumatic experiences and a social environment that has difficulty helping the individual regulate his emotions. African-Americans have relied in a belief and values systems that represents a collective identity, spirituality, oral communication and oneness with nature. These systems are based on an African Centered worldview that has the potential to increase healing and agency in boys of color. For example, adopting a system of care approach for children and adolescents by working with social service agencies, community programs, educational institution, legal service and social networks can foster healing. This approach appreciates the integration of the social- ecology, neurobiological, and behavioral systems that promotes healthy adaptation. 

Group therapy has been offered as a treatment for African-American males. These groups are perceived by clients as less stigmatizing and compliment the worldview of African-American culture (e.g., community, village). For example, rap therapy and spoken words represents a culturally sensitive intervention that considers the social, political, spiritual and emotional context that Black males’ lives are embedded within. These men can use ‘spoken words’ (i.e., rap, poetry and personal life narratives) to connect with their inner-self while giving voice to silence. Forms of stylistic expressions that allow Black men to become rhythmically engaged offer a unique way of accessing a full range of emotions and physical sensations, which serves as catalysis for change toward optimal psychological health and well-being. 

One of the most important components of successful therapy is a positive therapeutic relationship. This dynamic can be further intensified for Black males who live in deprived and marginalized social environments and/or have experienced racism and other forms of discrimination on a regular basis. A perquisite for developing a therapeutic alliance is for therapists to consider the stressful experiences of Black males in the United States. One must also be prepared to provide support and explore how these stressors may be exacerbated by their experiences of sexual abuse. 


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