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Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: Personal Reflection

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 4126 words Published: 18th May 2020

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As an African American, all of my life I have been reminded that I come from peoples who were subjugated to slavery. This reminder has come from family, teachers, society, and every day reminders from the color of my skin. This reminder has come in many forms from the positive reminders and affirmations that my ancestors were resilient and constantly fighting for their freedom, not slaves but people made to be slaves. To the negative rhetoric that made my ancestors out to be people who deserved their enslavement, laid down and willingly accepted inhumane treatment. This cognitive dissonance created a constant feeling of uneasiness and confusion in every aspect of my life.  From who I am, where I come from, and why my community seems to be facing issues that I do not observe to be as prevalent in the majority or even other minorities such as a lack of self-assurance and dignity, aggressive behaviors, more prevalent mental health stigmas, untreated mental health disorders, and more. Admittedly, some of these behaviors, thoughts, and feelings I experienced myself, and this is what drew me to the mental health field.

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First, I was in search of learning how my mind and its processes worked to assess if my way of thinking was normal. Did everyone seem to be living in two worlds with two different truths about who they are? As an undergraduate at Tennessee State University, I made the decision to major in psychology and minor in Africana Studies and sought out an answer. My undergraduate studies in psychology aided in learning, physiologically, how the brain worked and my studies in Africana Studies aided in discovering my ancestors history prior to slavery. However, it was not until my first semester of graduate school did I find an explanation to my observations of issues prevalent in the black community alone or disproportionately compared to other minorities or the majority. As well as, a plausible answer to my cognitive dissonance.

During my first semester of graduate school, I attended Dr. Joy DeGruy’s lecture at Fisk University, where she spoke on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Dr. DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome thesis was new to me that night, but once her research was shared and explanations concluded my mind was completely opened to new insight to why I grew up with the aforementioned struggles and where I could start to look for answers.

 This paper reviews the research done around Dr. DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome or PTSS, along with additional research that done that supports her thesis that slavery was a watershed event in American history that has led to psychological effects in African American community. Exploring its relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, how trauma has been discovered in epigenetics, the effects of trauma, how the effects of trauma can be passed down, symptoms of PTSS, and the current standard of care with this disorder.  All of the aforementioned goals of this paper are essential to understanding the importance of why this condition should be exalted and considered when counseling people of color.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome Defined

 According to Degruy (2017), the condition of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) is present among a population that has suffered multigenerational trauma as a result of slavery and continues to be subjugated to institutionalized racism and oppression in the present day. In addition to this condition, it (?) is a belief, real or imagined, that the advantages of the society where they live have not been made obtainable to them (DeGruy, 2017, p.101).  Together, this is PTSS, which is a multigenerational trauma in combination with persistent oppression and lack of access to opportunity to the advantages society has to offer.  Before Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome’s presence can be explained in present day African Americans, the argument that American slaves suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder must be made.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Slave Disorder

 Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is not in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). However, in efforts to establish Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as a condition that is experienced by African Americans and peoples of the African Diaspora who are descendants of people that have been subjected to slavery exploring the trauma of slaves must be considered.  One must understand the effects slavery may have had on its victims, to begin to understand the magnitude this heritage has on present day African Americans, by reviewing the diagnostic characteristics of trauma. Asking, how are human affected by trauma, and how is trauma identified? Lastly, how does trauma manifest itself? To establish the effects of trauma on Africans and African Americans it is important to define trauma.

 The Diagnostic Statistical Manual V is a manual used by psychologists in which they are able to find descriptions of features of disorders, a list of the symptoms associated with each disorder, and reports of conditions that may give rise to these disorders. Furthermore, it highlights that to be diagnosed with a specific mental health disorder one does not have to display evidence of all listed symptoms(American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The DSM-5 outlines some of the conditions that give rise to mental and/or emotional traumas that justify the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a Criterion A stressor in the DSM as a person who has been exposed to the following: threatened death, threatened or actual injury, actual or threatened sexual violence, and death in any of the following ways:

       Direct exposure

       Witnessing, in person

       Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.

       Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g.first responders, collecting body parts; professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures(American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

 It is imperative to note that the Diagnostic Statistical Manual reports that one of any of the aforementioned stressors is sufficient to cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This leaves the inquiry about enslaved Africans. Many were not limited to only experiencing one of the stressors listed above, but all of them. Moreover, the majority of them were subjected to exposure to these traumatic stressors on a consistent basis. The DSM also list the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as including:


       Constricted affect: persistent inability to experience positive emotions

       Irritable or aggressive behavior

       Persistent (and often distorted) negative beliefs and expectations about oneself or the world (e.g., “I am bad”. “The world is completely dangerous.”).

       Problems in concentration

       Self-destructive or reckless behavior

       And more…

There is insurmountable evidence that accounts for the atrocities slaves endured on a regular basis that meet the DSM’s criteria for a stressor that may cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  When taking into account peoples who were forcefully brought to the Americas from Africa, even taking into consideration that not everyone exposed to traumatic events become traumatizes, the following statement can be made. Any mental health professional could surmise that substantial amounts of slaves were likely to have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had society afforded them with the opportunity to be assessed and treated. As proven through slave narratives collected in the United States Library of Congress, slaves endured physical assaults, which led to assaults on their psyches. This was done through institutions and laws put in place deliberately designed to systematically to make African American feel less than human, and unjustly incriminate them. Often times exposing them to stressors such as actual or threatened death and actual or threatened sexual violence. For example, the establishment of the Slave Patrol in the south which is credited as the origin of the southern police force (Potter, 2013). Still today, African Americans are disproportionately affected by the police force both physically and mentally. Swaine, Laughland, and Lartery (2015) assert that African Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police. Furthermore, in a qualitative analysis conducted by Crawford, Nordberg, Praetorius, and Smith Hatcher (2016) analysis of qualitative research conducted on African American youth encounters with police, yielded results that indicated four overarching themes suggesting their encounters with police officers were: dangerous, controlling, prejudiced, and ineffective. Using the transcriptions from their interviews with African American youth to tell of sexual assaults committed by police by police, as well as, physical assaults. Through modern research that indicates this disparity, it can be concluded that modern day African Americans are being subjected to the previous mentioned stressors as that of their ancestors who were enslaved.  Gump (2010) notes that despite the abolition of slavery, its implications have endured through the multigenerational transferal of traumas its perpetuated, and the organizing principles it imparted on the descendants of the people who were subjected to this institution.

Inheriting the Effects of Trauma

 Dr. DeGruy suggests that the legacy of trauma can be found in many African American behaviors. For example, crime, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Such behaviors, at one time, were necessary to survival during slavery. However, in an America post-slavery Dr. DeGruy argues that these behaviors undermine the African Americans ability to succeed in society. To answer the questions of, how are effects of trauma transmitted through generations? Dr. DeGruy gives two explanations: its transmission can be found through epigenetics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how African Americans raise their children. First, the theory of epigenetics. Jablonka and Raz (2017) completed a comprehensive review of more than hundred studies of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance in which they described the phenomena in a wide range of organisms, including plants, animals, and bacteria. These studies included various kinds of adverse conditions, early stress and “emotional trauma” of the “first generation” which altered the gene expression in the subsequent generations. According to Kellerman (2013), DNA methylation, an epigenetic modification, can occur as a response to environmental influences to alter the functional expression of genes in an enduring and, potentially, intergenerational transmissible manner. Comparably, they may explain the long-lasting effects of trauma exposure. Dr. DeGruy points out epigenetics could be a possible variable to consider when researching these issues in the black community.

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 Next, how African Americans raise their children. DeGruy (2017) proclaims that parenting is comprised of numerous skills that passed down generation to generation. Understanding that African Americans are the decedents of peoples who most likely suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder an individual is likely to conclude that the survivors of slavery who were parents thus transferred this trauma to their children. Swerdtfeger, Larzelere, Werner, Peter, & Oliver (2013) research suggest interpersonal trauma experienced by the mother was found to increase the risk for symptoms that are early precursors of affective diagnoses, such as Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  The A.D.D. Resource Center (2017) reported that 9.5% of African American children were diagnosed with ADHD. Morgan, Hillemeier, Farkas, and Maczuga (2014) also found Black children in the United States were 70% less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than otherwise similar White children. Leaving the possibility that the prevalence of this mental disorder may be greater than what is documented. Furthermore, Vitulano, Fite, Hopko, Lochman, Wells, and Asif (2014) report findings that suggest ADHD symptoms and their association with the cubic slope of marijuana use initiation. Baglivio, Wolff, Piquero, Greenwald, & Epps (2016) found in their study that traumatic exposures increased the odds of oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD. Turner, Jenson-Doss, & Heffer (2015) account through their research findings that African-American parents reported less positive attitudes and more stigma than European American or Hispanic-American parents when seeking help for mental health for their children. Behaviors such as this is what Dr. DeGruy is referring to when she states that at one time these behaviors where forced and necessary, however, now they serve as a hindrance.  The prevalence of ADHD and the lack of help seeking among African American parents, along with, epigenetics are just two examples of how trauma can be passed down through generations.

Symptoms of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

 The DSM- 5 defines a syndrome as a pattern of behaviors that is brought about by specific circumstances (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). As stated, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a multigenerational trauma, such as slavery, in combination with persistent oppression and lack of access to opportunity to the advantages society has to offer.  These circumstances produce Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Dr. DeGruy identifies how Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is manifested, and detected by identifying three categories: vacant esteem, ever present anger, and racist socialization.

 Dr. DeGruy defines vacant esteem as; a state of being where one believes themselves to have little to no worth, this belief is exacerbated by comparable by similar pronouncements of inferiority from the personal sphere, as well as, the larger society. It is important to note that vacant esteem is not a measure of a person’s actual worth, but the belief of what their worth is. Vacant esteem is the outcome of the following three spheres of influence- society, community, and family. Understanding that in their own way each influence promotes a disparaging and limiting sense of identity in which one believes they are confined. Relating this to Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. DeGruy highlights that society has contributed to vacant esteem and the formation of PTSS through laws, institutions, and policies, as well as, through media.  Along with vacant esteem is ever present anger.

 Ever present anger is the result of deprivation from access to the pursuit of goals. For example, one of the most significant goals that has been block consistently by the dominant culture is the integration of African Americans in larger society (DeGruy, 2017). Furthermore, slavery was a fundamentally angry and violent process. White slave owners and American citizens modeled anger and violence in every aspect of slavery. African peoples and their descendants were chained, forcefully made to endure and commit heinous crimes against themselves and others who looked like them. Dr. DeGruy poses that any group of people forced to live under these circumstances would eventually learn and adopt the ways of their captors. Therefore, PTSS is manifested in ever present anger as African Americans learned that anger and violence are essential ingredients to ensure that their needs are met.

 Lastly, the racist socialization of African Americans. African Americans are unique in comparison others socialization experience. This is due to centuries of systematic and traumatic programming of inferiority, covering every aspect of an African American’s individual being. That is to say, that African Americans have been taught that they were inferior emotionally, physically, and spiritually. This has rendered them to be seen or perceive themselves to be ineffectual in their own eyes and society’s. Vacant esteem, ever present anger, and racist socialization is what Dr. DeGruy outlines to be the manifestations of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Healing Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

 Due to Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome resulting from intergenerational trauma which has transpired on various levels Dr. DeGruy states that healing must occur on various levels as well. In her outline of healing she shapes healing on the individual, family, societal, and community levels. As individuals, African Americans must realize that they are faced with the choice to manage the stressors of life in a way in which promotes a happy and healthy lifestyle. As individuals African Americans must steadily strive to reach higher and live better. This can be done by taking advantage of the experiences that have been lived within the African American community and the invaluable opportunities that higher education brings.

Next, African American families must establish a foundation in which their offspring have the chance to build their own experiences. Dr. DeGruy says that with the African American community having been under duress for so many generations is in need of a network of individuals that will support protect, and guide members of the community in a healthy way. Lastly, African American persons who inhabit positions where decisions regarding society are made must influence societal changes needed for the African American community to prosper. Forwards moving strides in individuals, families, community, and society is how Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome begins to be healed in the lives of present-day African Americans and future generations.

 In conclusion, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is still a topic of controversy in the mental health community. People have said that Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is groundbreaking and gives a culturally competent model to assess in therapy with African Americans and people belonging to the African Diaspora. This paper explored exactly what Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is, and how examining its close relation to Post Traumatic Stress disorder is imperative to things concept. The inheritance of trauma which leads to Post Traumatic Slave syndrome along with how that transference manifest in individuals through the aforementioned symptoms. And lastly, how to heal from this syndrome. It is my hope that research is continually added to expound upon the work Dr. DeGruy has begun. That my generation and peers in the mental health field work diligently to critically assess DeGruy work with an open mind absent of personal biases and prejudices. Through my generation I hope we are healed.



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