What is racism’s impact on mental health?

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Ashley Hutchinson
Ashley Hutchinson

Ashley Hutchinson, Special to Valley News

In thinking about how I wanted to write about racism and its impact on mental health as a White woman, I decided that I wanted to amplify the voice of a dear friend. He is an African American man who is currently serving his country and is a combat veteran. For his protection, I will refer to him as Lt. Smith, which is a pseudonym.

I spent an hour conversing with Lt. Smith about how racism has impacted him both as a service member and as a Black man. Lt. Smith is such an incredible human, and it saddens me to hear that he has been a target of racism. It shakes me to me core and angers me to think that so many would make a rash judgement about him because of the color of his skin, instead of getting to know the man I know. He is married, and he’s a father to children who are growing into compassionate individuals that mirror their wonderful parents. My own mixed-race husband found instant connection with Lt. Smith through their shared experiences in combat, as fathers and as men of character.

As I listened to Lt. Smith talk about the generational trauma experienced within the African American community, two things stood out to me most about the impact its had on his own mental health.

Lt. Smith’s first point was that “Racism is so normal for us generationally that we have just learned to suppress the trauma.”

Whoa. That statement was difficult to process. As a psychotherapist, I cannot tell you in one article how truly destructive trauma is on the mind, body and spirit; however, it is so damaging that there are now public health campaigns addressing untreated trauma’s destruction on humanity’s collective health.

The second point he made brought tears to my eyes: dehumanization. Lt. Smith spoke with both pride and excruciating sadness as he illustrated the emotional story of his grandfather, a military hero who received a Bronze Star and served in the Korean War. He told me a breathtaking account about his grandfather’s service to our country that reminded me of an act of heroism you would only see in a movie. His grandfather put his own life in danger to save his battle brothers from a fire-engulfed battlefield. After this brave act of courage, Grandpa Smith came home to be dictated to and to sit on the back of the bus like he was subhuman, all because he was Black.

People may wonder how events from the past, such as the one described by Lt. Smith, could have any impact on him today personally. It is simple. In psychotherapy and specifically in trauma work, therapist know from research that invalidated or neglected trauma merely festers and gets passed on to a person’s children and grandchildren.

Not only has Lt. Smith been the target of racism in his own lifetime, but the deep unhealed emotional wounds of his community continue to linger heavily as well.

Chronic invalidation of someone’s experiences is also a form of emotional manipulation. When someone refuses to listen to another person’s painful experience, it unconsciously tells those who are struggling that their pain is not real.

People do not have to live identical experiences in life to feel empathy for others. When a person of color tries to reach out and talk about racism negatively impacting their life, just listen. You are not responsible for having the answers to everything.

As a human, one of the most poignant acts of service you may engage in, is sitting silently beside those in emotional pain. This simple but affirming act has such wonderous healing capabilities. Each and every person possesses this ability.

One of the very best pieces of advice that I was given growing up was by my teacher, Sister Euphemia. She said with great conviction once to me, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, Ashley.” That interaction has never left me. I hope that it never leaves you, either.

This article is not a replacement for mental health care treatment. If you are currently experiencing a mental health care crisis, call 911 or get to your closest emergency room.

Ashley Hutchinson is a Temecula Valley clinical therapist, social worker and an alumna of the Loma Linda University School of Behavioral Health.