Can experiencing bigotry and racism lead to PTSD?


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.


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