Dr Robert London

Can experiencing bigotry and racism lead to PTSD?

Publish date: September 14, 2020

I have been studying, writing about, and treating posttraumatic stress disorder for many years. Over this time, I have seen PTSD expand to more and more areas of life, including my own view of a “subthreshold” version, which occurs in vulnerable people who experience a job loss, divorce, financial setbacks, or any number of painful life events.

Dr. Robert T. London of New York

As I noted in my recent book, “Find Freedom Fast,” for some people, PTSD can be triggered in the wake of events that are not life-threatening yet catastrophic for them and not tied to manmade or natural disasters, torture, assault, or war zone experiences.

The expansion of PTSD has led to the disorder being recognized in ICU patients during and after recovery (Crit Care Med. 2015 May;43[5]:1121-9), as well as in people diagnosed with cancer (Lancet Psychiatry. 2017 Apr;4[4]:330-8) and other illnesses that may cause emotional trauma – where one feels that one’s life is threatened. In some instances, the person’s life might indeed be in danger, not unlike what can happen in disasters, wars, torture, and even in some encounters with law enforcement.

This leads me to yet another circumstance that in some, may be tied to PTSD – and that is racial, religious, ethnic, and gender-related bigotry. In these cases, individuals feel threatened just for who they are in a society. Being on the receiving end of a circumstance that threatens a person’s very existence would seem to me to place a person as a potential survivor of PTSD, as well as any number of disorders, including anxiety, depression, or even paranoia.

Yes, discrimination and prejudice have been with us for a long time, and what concerns me is the psychological effect it has on children as well as adults. Friends of Irish descent remind me of hearing stories from parents and grandparents about employment signs reading, “Irish need not apply.” Certainly, those of Italian ancestry will easily recall the prejudice focused against them. And members of the Jewish community also can easily remember the bigotry and exclusion they have been subject to in certain neighborhoods and organizations, in addition to the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II, and the anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville, Va., from just 3 years ago – with gun-carrying militants doing the chanting.

Obviously, in certain circles, we still have private clubs, plus neighborhoods and residential buildings that exclude people for a variety of reasons.

Coming from a medical family, years ago I heard stories that, if you were Roman Catholic, it would be hard to get into certain medical schools – which might explain the establishment of Catholic medical schools that often were open to people of other faiths. Then we had medical school discrimination toward Jewish students, which was followed by the establishment of medical schools focused on admitting more Jewish students. The African American community also responded to discrimination by establishing medical schools, such as the school at Howard University in Washington.

Furthermore, we cannot forget the discrimination that women faced in institutions of higher learning. My father had two women in his medical school class, I was told. In my era, I would say at least 30% were women, and today, in the United States, medical school classes are more equally balanced with men and women. Some schools have more women than men.

The question I ask, is: How did all those women feel for so many years knowing that, for reasons beyond their control, they were prevented from achieving their chosen goals? Some might have felt badly, and others might have internalized the rejection. Others might have developed PTSD based on feelings of rejection.

However, the question here mainly is: Can PTSD result when exclusion and prejudice induce fear and terror in those on the receiving end – especially innocent children? Children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who witness their parents being shot immediately come to mind. This trauma can last well beyond childhood.

What we know today about structural racism should give the mental health community pause and make us realize the extent to which the African American community has been traumatized. Perhaps we should not be surprised by a study that found that the prevalence of PTSD among African Americans is 9.1%, compared with 6.8% for Whites (J Anxiety Dis. 2009 Jun;23[5]:573-90). Speaking with Black colleagues, friends, and patients, reading books such “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and watching films such as “Green Book,” give us a sense of how dangerous it was for Black families to travel in certain parts of the country in the recent past. I recall as a child hearing that, in Miami Beach, people of color could not stay overnight. (Even as a child I was surprised – having never heard anything like that. After all, I went to school with people of many religions and backgrounds. My parents thought those practices were terrible, and were appalled when they learned that some hotels were closed to Jews and others closed to Catholics.)

DSM-5, ICD-10 fall short

The DSM-5 describes trauma using a more or less one-dimensional set of guidelines as the focus. Those guidelines include exposure to direct violence, manmade or natural disasters, war, or torture, as well as exposure to a disaster or a life-threatening situation affecting a loved one. The ICD-10 is less restrictive about trauma but still has some limitations.

While considering potential PTSD, I try to use a less rigid diagnostic multidimensional approach, where I assess individual differences and experiences that play a role in those experiences as well as the patient’s vulnerability to the causation of PTSD – which also has to include any exposure to trauma (Curr Opin Psychol. 2017 Apr;14:29-34) before age 11 or 12. The data suggest that such early exposure leaves people more vulnerable to PTSD as adults (Soc Sci Med. 2018 Feb;199:230-40).

In my view, if individuals are frightened because of who they are – be it tied to their religion, race, sexual identity, or ethnicity – and what harm may come to them, and if they live in fear and avoidance of these potential traumatic situations that affect their mental stability and the way they live their lives, they might fit the PTSD model.

If we clinicians focus on what’s currently being brought vividly into the public eye today regarding the African American community, we would see that some of the ongoing fears of racism – whether tied to residential or workplace discrimination, unfair treatment by figures of authority, harassment, health inequities, or microaggressions – may give rise to PTSD. I know we can do better. We should broaden our definition and awareness of this very serious disorder – and be prepared to treat it.

Dr. London has been a practicing psychiatrist for 4 decades and a newspaper columnist for almost as long. He has a private practice in New York and is author of “Find Freedom Fast: Short-Term Therapy That Works” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). Dr. London has no conflicts of interest.