In our 2021 Mindometer survey, therapists reported seeing an increase in cases of racial trauma in the context of COVID-19, the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

What is racial trauma?

Racial trauma is the effect that prolonged racism in all its different forms has on someone’s mental health and wellbeing. Often victims of racial trauma re-experience racist events multiple times.

It can result from individual racism - such as being the victim of or witness to racist abuses or attacks, and from systemic racism – where racism is embedded in organisations’ policies and practices, typically based on marginalising and stereotyping members of minority communities. It can also include intergenerational trauma, where those who experience a racist event pass the trauma down to later generations.

Our member Kemi Omijeh describes racial trauma as: “the emotional labour of regular exposure to racism which takes its toll on your mental health and wellbeing.”

She adds: “It’s having to function in your everyday life with an invisible wound that is rarely acknowledged in a meaningful way.”

What causes racial trauma?

“Racism in all its forms causes racial trauma,” says Kemi, “as do socioeconomic disparities and the effects of institutional racism. A sense of belonging and connection can contribute to a person’s wellbeing; racist acts such as othering and stereotyping sever belonging and connections and can cause trauma. Being seen as 'other' and different, or being dismissed or stereotyped can also be traumatic."

The effect of racism can be made worse where victims who speak out are not believed and their experiences are not acknowledged. Or where they're expected to tolerate, forgive or educate on acts of racism, when they haven’t been given the right support and reparation.

Kemi says: “We may not be given the opportunity to fully heal and speak our truth as we still have to be mindful of white shame and not making those who hurt us feel too bad.”

How does racial trauma affect people’s mental health?

Psychologically, racial trauma can cause stress, anxiety, loneliness, withdrawal, low mood and hypervigilance. Physically, it can lead to general exhaustion and affect sleep, focus and concentration.

"It also affects your sense of belonging and connection with the wider community," says Kemi.

Your experiences of racism are personal to you as an individual and people shouldn’t underestimate or dismiss the affect they can have on your mental health. It’s important that your experiences and feelings are acknowledged, validated and supported.

How can you cope with racial trauma?

Kemi recommends coping strategies such a speaking about your experiences to a trusted person, reporting it and building up a support network.

Setting boundaries to protect and preserve your energy can help. Kemi says: “It’s OK to say no and avoid places and individuals who will bring on racial trauma. Ensure you remind yourself regularly, daily if needs be, that these acts are not a reflection of who you are.”

How can counselling help with racial trauma?

Therapy gives you a safe, non-judgmental space to explore your experiences, thoughts and feelings. This can help victims process and heal from racial trauma.

You may wish to choose a therapist from the same ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation as you, and that’s a personal decision. It’s more important that they have professional experience and understanding of racial identity and racial trauma. You can ask them about their knowledge, training and understanding of race, racial identity and racial trauma. They need to be equipped to accept your experiences and support you.