Op Ed

Racial PTSD and Paranoia

A recent study at Penn State has linked discrimination with “racial battle fatigue” for African-Americans, essentially suggesting that African-Americans as a whole may be subject to a generalized version post-traumatic stress disorder equivalent to the strains of military warfare (see the Penn State abstract Discrimination creates racial battle fatigue for African-Americans).

This may come off as an outsized claim; however, I think it’s simply the culmination in awareness of longstanding, pervasive patterns across our cultural baggage and societal norms. A recent article in The New Yorker (abstract for The Poverty Clinic) discusses the efforts of a clinician in the San Francisco area to deal with the physical effects of growing up poor and essentially ghettoized; there’s a relevant study that shows how the deployment of a certain hormone in reaction to stress situations can, over time, go haywire and take on a life of its own. More specific to the Penn State study, I’ve been reading quite a bit on “healthy paranoia” in relation to PoC interactions with White people, the sense of always being on guard. The link is clearer in part due to our recent, more nuanced understanding of what battle fatigue signifies and how PTSD really works – the way it heightens normal panic/anxiety responses to inappropriate levels for everyday life. Obviously, a plethora of other issues and arguments are wound up in this, and discussion can range from the applicability of the DSM-IV to the accuracy of racial distinctions. Nonetheless, there’s backing for the reality of these links between groups and medical conditions.

As per my norm, I’m gonna give you some personal and then broader Yiddy Judensky background that could, should anyone care to apply the principles to another ethnic group, have some interesting results. For instance! A chunk of my anxiety disorder manifests similarly to PTSD, in hyper-awareness based on my experience of having seizures in public. Such hyper-vigilance has a purpose (I’ve now been seizure-free, at least in public, for over seven years), but also goes too far: I overcompensate for my fear of epileptic onset by keeping myself in a constant state of tension when outside of my apartment, a semi-permanent panic mode. Based on every description I’ve encountered of that hyper-vigilance within racially charged environments, it appears to operate on the same principle: experience-based paranoia as survival tactic.

Entire communities are just as capable of experiencing mass PTSD and/or related issues as individuals – this is apparent in populations recovering from wars, genocides, terror campaigns, etc. Claiming a form of PTSD induced by social realities among a wide group is likewise logical. This is, of course, a societal problem, and will never be resolved except through societal actions. However, I think the problem can turn back around itself and affect individuals from a personal clinical health perspective as well. The long-term effects, whether by population or individual, are strictly hypothetical, of course. Nonetheless, the incidence of psychological disorders among various populations as possibly resulting from genetic markers is hardly a new theory; the logical inference is that said occurrence is determined in part by a variation on natural selection.

Jews (primarily men) of Ashkenazi descent have a distinctly non-normative incidence of clinical depression- and anxiety-related disorders [the most important studies on this can be found summarized in: Kohn, Levav, Zolendek, and Richter. Affective disorders among Jews. Hist Psychiatry. 1999 Jun;10(38 Pt 2):245-67. Disclaimer: I am not liable for any injuries you incur by reading a text on clinical psychiatry.]. This is popularly considered an example of selection at work – Jews in Europe had to be pretty fucking paranoid, and those who followed through on their fears were much more likely to avoid the Inquisitors, the pograms, the ovens, the Terror. Usually they achieved this by getting the fuck out, which required some combination of wealth and intelligence, all operating in fight-or-flight survival mode. I think about my great-grandparents, almost all of whom left the Ukraine shortly after the 1905 Revolution, convinced that the local anti-Semitic violence would only worsen in their lifetimes; as a result, my family was largely gone by WWI, and no one was there during WWII. My family line survived by being paranoid enough to take drastic steps based on fear of potential harm – not even necessarily the actual experience of it, just the potential. People in my immediate gene pool also display a pronounced propensity for developing mental disorders, most often of the affective variety.

Every Sunday I go to a bodega run by Yemenis to make a copy of the New York Times crossword puzzles (a purely matrilineal characteristic). I love the guys running the place – all cousins, rotating in and out as one or two go back to Yemen for six months or so. One of them asked me why all Jews were rich, and I kept the explanation-rebuttal fairly simple: those who had the means, whether financial or intellectual, to get out, did; those who lacked money and smarts, didn’t. Hence the common perception that all Jews are smart and rich; bluntly put, the others were weeded out by fire. Oversimplified QED: the poor Jews and/or those without sufficient smarts to get themselves the fuck out of Europe died, and the paranoid emigrants survived and propagated their genetic material.

When I use intelligence here, it refers most specifically to an awareness of stark social realities. The actions of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg are particularly poignant to me. The man was saturnine, difficult, brilliant, cynical, misanthropic “¦ and while vast numbers of European (especially German) Jews were convinced that things would settle down, Schoenberg’s immediate reaction to Hitler becoming Führer in 1933 was, “He means to kill all the Jews.” He reacted– overreacted, many thought – and left for the U.S., quickly. So he survived. Healthy paranoia, right? No one thought it was healthy at the time; a majority of Jews stayed, convinced that things would go back to being safe. They died in camps and ghettos; Schoenberg lived and taught in Los Angeles and made fun of his students’ more overtly jaunty works by leaping around and yelling, “Hi ho, Silver!”

Panic, anxiety, paranoia: those attributes saved many Ashkenazi Jews in times of grave peril for the group. Now, there are a bunch of their descendents who carry (were selected for?) the same characteristics, but there is no longer the same need for them. And we are sick, sick in considerable numbers. The trope of the shrink-obsessed New York Jew is based on the relative commonness of anxiety- and depression-related disorders in the population–and, of course, community acceptance of mental health care in general allows for the diagnosis and treatment of said population without stigma. I’m willing to bet a month’s worth of maximum-dosage generic Zoloft that, were a like percentage of Black Americans given the same physical and sociological access to diagnosis, similar patterns of passed-down (genetic and learned) “healthy” paranoia–and the subsequent detrimental hyper-vigilance seen in PTSD sufferers–would appear.

6 replies on “Racial PTSD and Paranoia”

Trigger Warning for ableist slur.

This is an absolutely fascinating response to the Racial PTSD study! It’s a theory I hadn’t considered.

I’m curious about how the results of this study will be utilized to try to change the stigma against the mental health profession in communities most affected by this type of PTSD.

As someone currently dealing with family members who react to suggestions of seeking help with variations on, “You just think I’m crazy! Getting mental health treatment means you’re crazy! Crazycrazycrazy!”, I am concerned about this news potentially driving communities further from the acceptance of mental health as an aspect of, you know, health.

Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I think it could go either way; if it’s shown to be partly the result of pervasive social issues there may be more acceptance of the mental health ramifications specifically because it won’t be as much as issue of individual mental health. But that will take concerted public action–people need to *know* that it’s not just their own heads, that it’s a community-wide problem. If people can be taught that it’s not their fault, the stigma will be counteracted.

This is interesting. There’ve also been studies (and I am too lazy to find them at the moment) showing that pregnant black women in America tend to have higher rates of preterm births, due to higher levels of stress hormones. The study included an evaluation of stress hormone in black women from other countries who then moved to the U.S.; once they arrived their levels rose to match the American-born black women. Racism Kills!

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