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Ideastream Public Media investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health.

Many African Americans face unresolved trauma of racism and enslavement; It's affecting their health, experts say

Many African Americans are dealing with the trauma of enslavement and racism. It can exacerbate health disparities, experts say.

Part II of the Out of Despair series

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The tragic murder of George Floyd two years ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic was accelerating, brought renewed focus to racial and health inequities in the U.S.

Northeast Ohio scholars and researchers say, however, that part of the reason it is such a difficult problem to address is that the historic racial wounds remain buried but not resolved.

“We haven't addressed the trauma post-George Floyd nor have most of us addressed it from 400 years,” said Angela Neal-Barnett, psychological sciences professor at Kent State University.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, trauma is an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful and shocking. It is also rarely discussed in African American communities.

When you think about slavery, trauma, being separated from families, and what the ancestors of African Americans survived, their experience was something that got translated all the way down 400 generations, said Dr. Seema Patel, staff physician at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine.

Trauma just went from one generation to the next generation, Dr. Patel said.

“We look at the Holocaust victims and that has been well studied. We have not looked at African Americans who are descendants of slaves and the trauma that comes from that,” she said.

Intergenerational trauma has been passed down from slavery

People captured in Africa were enslaved and packed tightly on top of each other into ships for the trip to the Americas, said Donna M. Whyte, Black Studies professor at Cleveland State University.

“What I always think about is just the sway of the ship on the ocean and people lying down and their bodies chaffed, or even having to eat, having to eliminate all of this in the same space,” Whyte said. “So, it's understandable how so many people had diseases. They became ill, many died, and they also resisted.”

1619 marked the arrival of the first recorded Africans in English North America after the long journey across the ocean called the Middle Passage.

“I would be surprised if not every single person who endured [enslavement] had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result,” said Monica Williams, a sought-after expert on racial trauma.

Williams who is a clinical psychologist, researcher and author from the University of Ottawa noted that racism is long, wide and deep.

“It started from the very beginning when Black people were enslaved. To rationalize, enslaving another human being, this system was invented whereby there's white people and then everybody else who has less value,” Williams said.

Many African Americans are dealing with transgenerational trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma. It can show up biologically, socially, mentally, and emotionally, experts said.

“And it was never discussed. And it was never talked about. It just went from one generation to the next,” she said.

We have looked at everything from reconstruction to Jim Crow to civil rights, and in that fight, in that struggle becomes stress and trauma, Kent State University’s Neal-Barnett said.

Two Cleveland physicians say they've seen how many African American men are reluctant to seek medical care and rarely communicate their health-related issues. Part I of the Out of Despair series.

High rates of disease are connected to trauma and racism

Racism actually contributes to a lot of the healthcare disparities that we see in the area of medicine known as epigenetics, said Dr. Charles Modlin, a urologist and the medical director of inclusion, diversity and equity at MetroHealth.

“Our bodies can be altered in terms of how our bodies interpret or express our genes, which can lead to higher rates of a lot of the diseases,” Dr. Modlin said. “And we see higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.”

In addition to physical ailments, Black people are also experiencing mental health issues related to racism and stress, said Neal-Barnett.

“Our inability to address that trauma affects our mental health, which affects our physical health,” she said.

“The more racism you experience, the worse, your mental health, the worse, your physical health, and for many reasons.” Dr. Williams said.

Both Williams and Neal-Barnett agree that more people of color should be trained and sent into the communities to bring more awareness about trauma and other mental health issues in places like barbershops, beauty salons and churches.

The healing begins when we talk about our trauma and realize that if it happened to you, it probably happened to someone in your family, your mother, your great grandmother and getting the help necessary is also vitally important, Neal-Barnett said.

This story is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.