TW: This article contains graphic details about depression and suicide. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call 800-273-8255. To seek a culturally competent mental health professional, call the Black Mental Health Alliance at 410 338-2642.
You’re walking down the street enjoying your day, and someone walking past you clutches their purse. You’re shopping in the store, and a worker asks you if you plan to pay. You’re the only Black student in your college class, and the looks on peoples’ faces tell you that you don’t belong.
In each of these instances, you were taken out of the mental frame of mind you were in and forced to deal with the emotional consequences of being racially profiled. It’s a phenomenon Dr. Katherine Helm calls “racialized stress.”
“And your race becomes right here. It’s always right there but in a way where you feel threatened, and the stress of that on our brains, bodies, hearts overtime is just enormous,” Dr. Helm told The Black Wall Street Times.
“I think Black people experience continuous racialized stress, which decreases immune system responses, does not allow you to be fully present. You can numb out. It can contribute to depression and anxiety. Racialized stress is traumatizing and that’s kind of a daily experience for BIPOC folks, especially Black folks,” Dr. Helm added.
A week of racial torture
To say the last week has been challenging for Black Americans would be an understatement.
Even after a year of lockdowns, social uprisings, and an insurrection, events from the last week highlighted the racialized stress plaguing people of African descent across the country.
For instance, Americans collectively watched as a jury chose not to hold Kyle Rittenhouse accountable for murdering two people, with the judge on the case appearing to help his defense at every turn. We watched as Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt waited until the last possible moment to grant partial clemency for Julius Jones, traumatizing millions in the process. And through hot tears, the family of Ahmaud Arbery, along with the nation, have watched as defense attorneys assassinate Arbery’s character in an attempt to cover for three White men who’s lynching of Arbery was captured on video.
While the nation engages in a cultural battle over how to teach about racism in public schools, the negative effects of not talking about race disproportionately harm Black and brown children.
Racialized stress is a threat to our lives
In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, mental health expert Dr. Katherine Helm explained the impacts of racialized stress on her Black clients. She offered coping skills to help families take control over their health.
“I don’t know any BIPOC or Black clients yet who don’t discuss this with me, especially around the murder of George Floyd,” Dr. Helm said.
She has over 20 years of experience working in psychiatric hospitals, college counseling centers, community mental health centers, and in private practice. With a particular passion for Black clients and trauma clients, Dr. Helm also teaches full time at Lewis University. There, she trains graduate students seeking to become practitioners.
Dr. Helm said when people continuously see images of police brutality or community violence “this is something that impacts our health. It takes our life expectancy down,” regardless of the socioeconomic status of her clients.
Previously, we highlighted how rates of suicide have exploded in Black communities despite an overall decrease across the nation since the start of the pandemic.
For instance, between March and June of 2020, suicide rates among White residents in Baltimore, Md. decreased by 45%, while they increased by 94% for Black residents.
The importance of having a positive racial identity
To combat the deadly effects from racism, Dr. Katherine Helm echoed the advice found in teachings from historic civil rights leaders.
“Research shows having a positive racial identity—so feeling good about yourself as an African-American person—has a protective benefit,” Dr. Helm said.
Her words of advice sounded eerily similar to the words of Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael. The 1960s civil rights leader who coined the term “Black power,” defined the importance of a strong self image in his 1967 book “Black Power – The Politics of Liberation.”
“Many blacks are now calling themselves African-Americans, Afro-Americans or black people [instead of negro] because that is our image of ourselves. When we begin to define our own image, the stereotype—that is, lies—that our oppressor has developed will begin in the white community and end there,” Ture wrote.
Offering a blueprint for Black people to take control over their communities and mental wellbeing, Ture furthered explained the term “Black power.”
“The goal of black self-determination and black self-identity–Black Power–is full participation in the decision-making process affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people,” Ture wrote.
In a country built on the backs of enslaved Africans, where negative images of Black people circulate daily, it’s easy to forget that Black people were the first kings and queens, the first builders of civilization, and important contributors to the United States of America today.
As far as Dr. Helm is concerned, taking back the power that racism drains from Black people starts with a positive racial identity.
Coping skills for racialized stress
“If you think about it, it’s America. The backdrop of America is we all live in a racialized existence, including White people, even though they may not know it. But we never have conversations about it,” Dr. Helm told TheBWSTimes.
She said the key to protecting and preserving one’s physical and mental health in the face of racialized stress requires starting at an early age.
“Research also shows Black parents are more likely to racially socialize their children where you say ‘this is what happens to us, we are Black, these are some ways to deal with it.’ And this helps children have a positive racial identity,” Dr. Helm said.
Across the country, angry, mostly White parents have threatened school administrators over a college level theory that isn’t even taught in K-12 public schools. Yet, Dr. Helm, who has three kids of her own, says Black parents shouldn’t shy away from talking about race and racism to their children.
In many cases, Black students don’t have a choice. Dr. Helm’s daughter experienced racism as a seven-year-old swimmer. Her son experienced racism for the first time in Kindergarten.
While politicians who ban the teaching of certain racial topics claim they don’t want to make children feel bad, these same politicians remain silent on the negative feelings Black kids have been experiencing for generations in American classrooms.
Dr. Helm: Learn when to lean in, when to disconnect
Dr. Helm said it’s “especially important now” for kids to learn about race.
“Kids know what their race is and the value society places on that race, even if you’re not talking about it. To not talk about it doesn’t center children’s experiences, doesn’t give them tools to deal with it,” she said.
Yet, perhaps most importantly, Dr. Helm said that Black people, especially those working in fields that involve racism on a daily basis, have to learn when to disconnect from racist images to protect yourself.
“At a certain point of time to be present in your own relationships you have to dial it down. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it often means you care so much that it makes it harder to function.”
According to Dr. Helm, maintaining a positive racial identity, talking with your family about racism, and learning when to disconnect from racist issues, are all key to overcoming the racialized stress that comes with being Black in America.