Living With Historical and Present Trauma is a Deadly Combination

May 11, 2023

Health statistics for African Americans generally paint a bleak picture. From diabetes to heart disease and other maladies, African Americans suffer more than their white counterparts. According to the Office of Minority Health, part of the Department for Health and Human Services, “African Americans are generally at higher risk for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.” Stroke and heart disease are the leading killer for African American women. Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death for black men. And there is another, less thought of, health issue for African Americans.

Mental Health America reports, “Overall, mental health conditions occur in black and African American people in America at about the same or less frequency than in white Americans. However, the historical black and African American experience in America has and continues to be characterized by trauma and violence more often than for their white counterparts and impacts emotional and mental health of both youth and adults.”

According to Cigna, “blacks are 20 percent more likely to report psychological distress and 50 percent less likely to receive counseling or mental health treatment due to underlying socioeconomic factors, such as, historical adversity — including slavery, sharecropping, and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social, and economic resources — that translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by black and African American people today.

The toll of societal issues on black mental health cannot be understated. According to the CDC:

  • Black and African American people living below poverty are twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those living over two times the poverty level.
  • Adult blacks and African Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than adult whites.
  • Blacks and African Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide at all ages. However, black and African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than white teenagers (9.8 percent v. 6.1 percent).

Throughout time, blacks have sought relief from the trauma of just living while black. Harriet Tubman led slaves to freedom. William and Ellen Craft, from Macon, embarked on what Ilyon Woo, author of, “Master Slave Husband Wife — An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom,” called “self-emancipation.” Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her prize-winning book, “The Warmth of Other Suns, that the Great Migration in the 20th century saw six million black southerners “leave the land of their forefathers and fan out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America.”

Think of the stress and trauma that was present to force a people to leave, as Wilkerson wrote, “the tobacco farms of Virginia, the rice plantations of South Carolina, cotton fields in east Texas and Mississippi, and the villages and backwoods of the remaining southern states… They set out for cities they had whispered of among themselves or had seen in a mail-order catalogue.”

That trauma still resides in black folk today — and as strong as we believe ourselves to be, our very existence continues to be questioned, and many walk around each day with a weight on their shoulders and they need help to lift it off. Some turn to the bottle and drugs. Some turn to family and friends. Others turn to ministers, but most don’t turn to anybody.

The stigma surrounding seeking help for depression and other mental health issues must stop. Too many blacks are dying or living in pain because they don’t seek the help they need, and as the statistics point out, the next generation is at risk, too. “It’s your battle, but you don’t need to fight alone.”

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available.

  • Call or text 988 or chat
  • Text MHA to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor from Crisis Text Line.
  • Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

If you need support, but not in crisis, consider reaching out to a warmline. Warmlines offer a place to call when you just need to talk to someone. Speaking to someone on these calls is typically free, confidential, and run by people who understand what it’s like to struggle with mental health problems. Find a warmline at

Written by: Charles Richardson