When post-traumatic stress disorder is discussed, images of broken, injured soldiers returning from combat frequently come to mind. But PTSD is not limited to the military. According to the American Psychological Association, “PTSD does not just happen to combat veterans. PTSD can occur in all people, in people of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and any age.” African-American women are no exception.
The Chicago Tribune reported that researchers from Northwestern University had found interesting results as they studied low-income African-American women living in the Chicago community of Oakland. The researchers, who recruited 72 women with depression symptoms from the high-crime Southside neighborhood for their 2016 study, found that nearly 30 percent of the women had PTSD, and 7 percent exhibited strong symptoms of the disorder. If one-third of African-American women in some communities may be at risk, PTSD is an issue that should concern the African-American community.
Why are African-American women suffering from PTSD? What can be done to help them?
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, “PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” The NIMH notes that to be diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic event, a person must display one or more symptoms from each of the following categories: re-experiencing (e.g., flashbacks), avoidance (e.g., staying away from places associated with the trauma), reactivity (e.g., being easily startled), and changes in cognition or mood (e.g., difficulty remembering the trauma, etc.).
Many traumatic events can provoke PTSD. According to the Mayo Clinic, events that can trigger PTSD include military combat, childhood physical abuse, sexual assault (rape), physical assault, being threatened with a weapon, car accidents, fires, natural disasters, violent crimes (muggings, robberies, etc.), and other “extreme or life-threatening events.”
However, the NIMH cautions that not every person who is exposed to a traumatic event will develop PTSD. There are risk factors that make a person more likely to develop the disorder. One of the risk factors is being a woman, as women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. The National Center for PTSD found that while women have lower exposure to traumatic life events as compared to men, because women are more likely to experience sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse, they may be more likely to experience PTSD. Additionally, the National Center found that women may be at higher risk because they are more likely than men to experience trauma within trusted relationships or to suffer chronic violence. A trauma like domestic violence during a marriage or romantic relationship would meet both criteria.
PTSD can affect many areas of a patient’s health. Although it is a psychological condition, it can have other impacts as well. Recent research has shown that African-American women with PTSD are more likely to experience obesity, disordered eating, and even chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, researchers from Harvard found that PTSD was associated with a 90 percent higher risk for type 2 diabetes among African-American study participants. For these reasons, PTSD should not be taken lightly.
Despite barriers to seeking counseling, the good news is that if the patient can overcome those obstacles, Black women are excellent candidates for many of the most effective PTSD treatments. Researchers have found that African-American women improve greatly after using methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction.