People of color experience systemic racism on a daily basis, and research shows that, unsurprisingly, that experience is often stressful and traumatic over time.
In fact, Dr. Monica Williams’ research has identified a connection between racism and post-traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD). Other researchers have looked at how racial discrimination affects neurobiological pathways, and therefore, mental health.
“When we think about trauma, like more traditional forms, there’s often a beginning point, and there’s an end point. With race-based trauma, we don’t really get that,” says Simone Leavell-Bruce. “When you think about healing, it’s kind of tough, because we live in a racist society, so there’s no break from it. There’s no ending.”
Leavell-Bruce is a doctoral intern at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC Charlotte and also works with Dr. Williams’ Behavioral Wellness Clinic as a visiting therapist. (She’s 99.9% a doctor, by the way; she finished her doctorate in clinical psychology but just technically has to finish the internship before claiming the title!) Her doctoral dissertation research looked specifically at mental health among activists like the members of Black Lives Matter.
During this moment of increased activism for racial justice, Nutritious Life talked to Leavell-Bruce about her study, the overall science on racism’s psychological toll, and why self-care—via practices like connecting to your community and just simply getting enough sleep— is necessary and important for people of color.
Racism, Mental Health, and Self-Care: A Q&A With Simone Leavell-Bruce
What inspired your research?
Being Black in America is already difficult. But then when you add on that layer of being an activist, there are specific and unique challenges, because you are actively…confronting the system and challenging it and demanding change. It was really important to me to study that specific group and look at some of the unique issues.
We already know that racism is ongoing. It’s perpetual, and we never get a break from it. Race-based trauma and stress can lead to symptoms very similar to PTSD. There are [also] some symptoms that are not really counted for in our diagnostic system that often come from racism.
What did your research show specifically related to the stress experienced by Black activists?
I looked at how many hours a week folks were involved. Those who were more active or spent more hours on race-based social justice work experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety than those who were less involved. And it’s also about visibility. People who are more visible, on the front lines at the rallies and protests, they also experience higher levels of depression and anxiety, as opposed to those who might be more behind the scenes.
But can’t feeling like you’re not doing enough also be psychologically stressful?
With any kind of trauma, the main issue there is that there is a lack of control the person feels over their body. There is this idea of: Am I going to live through this, or is going to kill me? So with racism, especially with what we’re seeing now on social media, that’s this loss of autonomy and control over one’s body. And so when you are inactive that way, when you feel like you don’t have control and autonomy, that can be a very traumatic experience.
So for folks who feel like they can’t do anything, it’s disempowering. It often makes you feel hopeless, helpless. Like: What can I do here? And that’s why I really advocate for people to use their voice in whatever way they can, whether it be safely protesting or using your social media platform in an active way, donating, having conversations with white people. Activism looks different, and we can’t all be activists in the same way. We’re not built for that. But I really advocate for people to be active and to take their control and power back, because with trauma, often your voice is taken away. Someone else is taking it and you can’t get it back. And that’s a very disorienting experience.
RELATED: How to Take a Mental Health Day
So from a psychologist perspective, what is helpful for people experiencing this kind of stress?
Within activist cultures, generally, there’s this theme of “We know we’re all suffering,” but there is also not a soft place for folks to land in. There’s no attention paid to self-care and coping. It’s kind of like, “Well, this is what we do. We’re gonna put ourselves out there. But we also don’t want to hear folks whining and complaining about it. Just get to the work. And so often that leads to activist burnout. There’s research about that, and a lot of people have had to disconnect from work that they’re doing because of the burnout, because of the physical, emotional, and psychological toll. Your body and brain can only take so much.
So what I advocate and lots of people advocate is, yes, going to therapy, whether it’s individual therapists or a group…maybe Black women’s groups or Black men’s groups. But also thinking about connecting with your peers. There’s a lot of research that shows that when you are connected with people who share your identity—whether your racial identity, or maybe your religious, spiritual identity—and you process together with them, and share, and use your voice to express how you’re feeling, that has a healing effect.
And taking breaks from social media to restore yourself is very, very helpful. Something I’m doing right now is kind of taking a step back. It is good to be intentional about it, like when you view it, how long you’ve engaged in these conversations with people arguing with each other…
Another thing that is really important is not taking on the burden of the White ally. So, there are a lot of White people who are out there doing their own work, and there are also some who, you know, I’ve got a lot of calls and texts like “I’m so sorry about the climate, what can I do?” And oftentimes Black people, we end up taking care of the white people, which is an additional burden. So refer these well-meaning folks to their own work. There are a lot of anti-racist webinars and books and things that they can do or talk to other white people who may be further along. Not taking that burden on is different for everybody. Some people want to educate, some people don’t.
What about self-care, or “wellness” practices? Can they really help?
Making sure that you’re taking care of your physical body really does help. Yoga has been shown to be really helpful when you’re dealing with trauma. And just taking time for healing is so necessary.
When you’re dealing with something like racial trauma, that is so disorganizing and so catastrophic, it’s grounding and restorative to literally feed your body with food, with exercise, with proper rest, with restorative and affirming voices around you. Those things are very, very important, because again, we have to take our power back. And in this world, where there’s so little we can do in terms of dismantling systems, it’s such a slow process, we can decide how to take care of our bodies and to remove our bodies from certain spaces and lean into certain spaces.
How do we manage the tension between recognizing that importance but also feeling self-indulgent when there’s so much hard work to be done, like how you mentioned earlier that activists often don’t give themselves time for self-care?
I think that there’s a balance that has to be had there. The work is so important, and there’s so many of us engaged in it, and I don’t know the answer. But what would it mean to have waves of activists, some off and some on, so that you can have healing circles, so that you can commune together? Or have different types of activism, like teaching or other forms? I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, so Chanelle Helm is the BLM leader there. I watch her, and she is so amazing, and I hope that she has time for herself and her family, because it’s…just got to be grueling.
The work is important…and when you don’t eat properly, when you don’t sleep properly, your brain doesn’t function properly. You really have to take care of those things. Unfortunately, this fight is not going anywhere. It’s gonna be there. We’ve gotta be able to do both at the same time.