Black communities have been dealing with collective trauma for generations, but there is more support for this than ever before.
Trauma is a deeply complex emotional response, one often discussed in a solitary light, as something that affects people on an individual level. But for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities, especially Black communities, trauma isn’t just an individual experience ― it’s a collective experience that affects all the communities.
But how does trauma manifest for Black communities, and what can we do to lessen the impact of that experience? Below, we spoke with experts on what collective trauma can look like in Black communities and how we can transform and heal that trauma to enact real, meaningful change.
“The term ‘collective trauma,’ or ‘community trauma,’ refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire community or group of people,” Yolo Akili Robinson, founder and executive director of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), tells Healthline. “Just as trauma creates a number of responses in an individual, collective or community trauma creates these responses for communities.”
Black communities have been experiencing collective trauma for centuries, trauma that stems from a long history of enslavement and abuse in the United States. But this trauma isn’t just a past event ― it links to pervasive structural, systemic, and institutional racism, which has a
“Traumatic events continue to impact and shape the perspectives of individuals and feelings of mistrust in government, social service, and healthcare entities, which impedes meaningful community engagement,” Kimberly Rawlinson, CHW program manager at the Center for Community Health Alignment (CCHA), tells Healthline.
Rawlinson explains that when communities of people, like Black communities, experience traumatic events, it significantly affects their health and well-being at both the individual and community levels. “These events also impact how individuals perceive institutions and systems that have intentionally done harm, more harm than good,” she shares.
The health impact of trauma on Black communities
“We see the impacts of community trauma in many ways in the Black community,” continues Rawlinson. “Many of the health disparities that affect both Black and Brown communities are rooted in systemic and structural racism across many entities/sectors.” And this structural racism is one of the primary drivers of social determinants of health, she explains.
For example, research has shown that African Americans have the highest risk and frequency of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than any other racial or ethnic group. But even in Black folks seeking mental health care,
Healthcare disparities that show a lack of access to healthcare services and racial bias from professionals are some reasons why Black communities continue to experience disproportionately worse healthcare outcomes.
The social impact of trauma on Black communities
Trauma doesn’t just affect healthcare-related situations, either. “Issues of racism and inequities that are still very present today contribute to the many social issues that our communities face,” shares Rawlinson. We only have to look as far as recent police killings of Black people in the U.S. to see that very clearly.
And past and present events shape the sentiment in Black communities, says Rawlinson, sharing the experience from one CCHA-led community engagement project. “In talking with the communities that participated, two communities shared examples of specific traumatic events such as the Lamar Bus Riot and the Orangeburg Massacre that continue to shape the perspectives of residents and their feelings of mistrust,” she says.
Intergenerational trauma describes the effects of trauma that have trickled down through various generations. For tens of millions of Black people in the U.S., intergenerational and collective trauma go hand-in-hand. But whether collective or generational, trauma can be healed ― we just need to take a few steps first, according to Robinson.
First, Robinson explains that we must abolish “systems that perpetuate generational harm,” such as prisons and punishment-based education systems, and replace them with care and restoration-centered interventions that focus on “wellness, living wages, free healthcare, [and] transformative justice practices.”
He explains that we must also make efforts on a community level, not just a systemic level, to introduce “new patterns of relating, framing emotions, and healing” that Black communities can practice and share with each other.
Relying on your community
“Both of these tenements are what BEAM does in our work ― creating collective change through shifting practices and supporting advocacy for the transformation of trauma-producing systems,” Robinson says.
“Our Black Mental Health & Healing Justice Training, for example, helps community members practice new tools and framing for crisis support while also interrogating the history of racism, psychiatry, and psychology in this country and further affirming their experiences but also giving context to why we have mental health challenges in our community.
“We also have programs like our Black Parent Support Fund, which gives direct economic support to Black parents living with mental distress ― the compounding forces of discrimination and rising costs of living produce more pressure on our folks, which in turn amplifies mental health distress,” he continues.
Rawlinson also emphasizes the importance of community intervention and input. “Communities should be invited to be a part of the decision making processes to determine what is needed to address the traumas of their communities,” she says, something that CCHA does through their community engagement projects.
Ultimately, the goal is equity ― giving Black communities exactly what they need to heal. “Every effort should be made to ensure that equitable policies, structures, and practices are put into place,” Rawlinson explains. “Intentional and meaningful approaches to include those who are most impacted by inequities will help lead to reduced health disparities and healthier and thriving communities.”
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“Collective trauma is a real concern, and as we become more clear that it is, we have to recognize that we cannot ‘one-on-one’ therapy our way out of this mental health crisis,” shares Robinson. Organizations like BEAM provide those collective, community-level group interventions that Robinson emphasizes are so crucial ― interventions that are built by and for Black communities.
“We need the funding to go to the folks who are already doing the work ― those who show up without the dollars, on the streets, in the churches, and at the barbershops, because they believe in our people,” he says. “Not because they are trying to grab ahold of and exploit a cultural moment to make themselves look good.”