Complex PTSD and the African-American Community


There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, Author


We have come over a way that with tears has

                             been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the

                              blood of the slaughtered.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) Lift Every Voice and Sing, stanza 2 (1900)


My Dear Readers,

This week, we return to the first weekly blog after my hiatus with a posting from At The Crossroads, where we focus on the emotional realities facing the African-American community.

Each year, we pick a specific area of interest, and this year, we will focus on Complex Trauma Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its impact on the African-American community.  As a clinical traumatologist with over 30 years of clinical and forensic practice, I’ve found that complex trauma is one of the major common, but not well-studied, obstacles for communities of color, impacting everything from economic stability to political power to violence and social stability.

Complex Trauma is a form of psychological trauma.

Being psychological and not physical, complex trauma quietly destroys one’s emotional and mental functioning. It is often hidden and denied, so it, and the person who suffers from it, is increasingly misunderstood as the wounds continue to compound and the symptoms displayed become more noticeable.  Complex trauma’s ability to hide itself allows those impacted, as well as those around them, to deny its presence and pretend that they are not wounded and traumatized, thereby adding damage to the individual and eventually, the crippling of communities.

Complex Trauma PTSD results from events and experiences that are:

  • repetitive, prolonged or cumulative,
  • most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and mistreatment, including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults, and
  • often occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life and in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability, disempowerment, dependency, age and/or infirmity

Complex Trauma PTSD can be difficult to detect. The person experiencing complex trauma may seek to minimize it by passing it off as anxious feelings or minor depression. Its nature is insidious, meaning it can proceed in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.  Complex Trauma PTSD may be initially seen as harmless, but in addition to psychological damage, it can also lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and increases in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

Complex Trauma PTSD can be difficult to detect. The person experiencing complex trauma may seek to minimize it by passing it off as anxious feelings or minor depression. Its nature is insidious, meaning it can proceed in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.  Complex Trauma PTSD may be initially seen as harmless, but in addition to psychological damage, it can also lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and increases in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

What are the symptoms of Complex Trauma PTSD? 

 Symptoms of Complex Trauma PTSD can include the following:

  • difficulty with managing impulses such as anger
  • feelings of self-destructiveness
  • dissociative episodes
  • a chronic sense of guilt or responsibility
  • difficulty trusting people
  • isolation, being emotionally distant
  • difficulty establishing and/or maintaining intimate relationships
  • feelings of hopelessness or despair
  • focus on somatic or medical problems

 What makes Complex Trauma PTSD different from other forms of trauma? 

 Psychological traumas are grouped in three distinctive areas:  interpersonal, impersonal and crossover.  Generally speaking, interpersonal trauma creates more severe trauma in people than impersonal trauma does, because the former is deliberate, versus the latter, which is accidental.

  • Interpersonal (deliberate)-are traumatic stressors are premeditated, planned or implemented by other human, such as the violation and/or exploitation of another person.
  • Impersonal (accidental)-are events which may occur randomly or an “act of God,” such as a natural disaster (earthquake, tornado) or an accident (automobile)
  • Crossover-are a result of combination of both, referring to accidents that have a human cause or factor (transportation accident caused by human error or neglect). Crossover traumas are more severe than impersonal and less severe than interpersonal as it lacks deliberation, premeditation or planning.

What are the specific forms of Complex Trauma PTSD that can impact the African-American community?

 There are twelve forms of complex traumas that can individually, or in combination, impact the African-American community.  These include the following:

  • Historical
  • Intergenerational
  • Insidious
  • Racial Profiling
  • Micro-aggression (assaults)
  • Macro-aggression (assaults)
  • Betrayal
  • Invisibility Syndrome
  • Just World Trauma
  • Race-Related Stress
  • Vicarious
  • Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Why is Complex Trauma PTSD viewed as being impactful within the African-American community?

The African-American community are descendants of Africans who were enslaved, chained, taken from their families and transported thousands of miles in what is known as the Middle Passage.  During the Middle Passage, the enslaved African was treated as cargo, and millions did not survive the journey.

For a period of 250 years, black people were slaves.  They were prevented by acts of extreme punishment from speaking their native languages or following their cultural/religious traditions, which destroyed potential coping mechanisms for the trauma they experienced. The slave family as a unit was neither recognized nor respected.  Slave marriages and families were broken up repeatedly at slave auctions.  It was not uncommon to for a family member to be ripped away, never to be seen again.  The institutions of religion and marriage, although recognized within the slave community, were not recognized by the American legal system.

Following the ending of the American Civil War towards the end of the Civil Rights Movement, a period of 125 years, African Americans have lived under various sets of laws known as the Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws, which denied them the “full citizenship” given to white Americans.  During this time, state and local governments either denied or ignored their demands for equality in education, housing, employment and medical treatment until the federal government intervened.

Following the achievement of integration, as African-Americans attempt forward, they have been met have been met with staunch resistance.  There remains those within the dominant majority who continue to follow historical trends by continue to maintain strife and seek to impede the hard-fought legal rights of African-Americans.  Such resistance has created various forms of racism, some subtle and passive, others overt and intimidating through fear, threats and outright violence.

To summarize, since being taken as slaves to North America in 1619 to up to today in 2016, African-Americans have endured continuous acts of racism, oppression, and discrimination. These experiences meet the standard diagnosis for Complex PTSD.

Complex Trauma PTSD sounds intense, painful and scary. Is complex PTSD treatable?  Can a person identified with complex PTSD live a normal life?

Yes, complex PTSD as with any major illness or injury is intense, painful and scary.   Whether it is treatable is dependent on the willingness of impacted individuals to let go of belief systems that reinforce the view of mental illness, traumatic experiences and psychotherapy as weaknesses, framed as badges of shame, humiliation, and disgrace.

Can a person identified with Complex Trauma PTSD live a normal life?

Individuals who have been traumatized repeatedly, over a period of time or within in specific settings, are often vulnerable to emotional and psychological struggles. The individual responding to complex trauma must define what may constitute living a normal life for themselves, and then pursue it through processing it through therapy.

Concluding Words-Dr. Kane 

It is essential to understand that Complex Trauma PTSD differs from other forms of PTSD. Where other forms require only a one-time experience or episode, those responding to complex PTSD have experienced prolonged trauma such as child abuse, domestic violence, threats of assault, or death.

We are moving into this direction understanding there are numerous blogs, media outlets, which comment on current events, but very few of them adequately explore the clinical or psychological impacts these events have on the community.   For example, during this month i.e. February we will be exploring from a clinical perspective the psychological and emotional impact of

  • Using the month of February each year as Black History Month to acknowledge or celebrate black history.
  • The Academy Awards 2016 and the need for approval or acceptance.

The focus of my inquiry will be the adverse impact of these events as it relates to complex trauma within the African-American community.   In doing so, it is my aim to create a model of empowerment for the psychological, emotional and mental wellness of our community.

Complex Trauma PTSD has severely wounded the African-American individual.  The psychological impacts are magnified due to community taboos and cultural beliefs against the acknowledgment and willingness to seek treatment.  This illness has driven many into states of hopelessness, despair, dependency and a survival mentality. There is an opportunity here, however: we must be willing to understand what ails us, acknowledge the pain and end the suffering in silence.  Only then will the traumatized be empowered to balance the weight of the experience and live the lives they seek.   Let us focus on the journey and not the destination.

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…




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