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Racial Trauma and Addiction

An important component to explore in therapy.

Key points

  • Racial trauma may contribute to the development of addiction for some individuals.
  • The mental strain around themes of ostracism, rejection, body image, and being perceived as “other” can take a toll on mental health.
  • Exploring the cultural context of a person’s identity can help treat addiction.
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

In the field of addiction, there is sometimes little attention paid to the impact of racial trauma. As a psychotherapist specializing in cultural issues and addictions, I’ve found this neglect often leaves clients still grieving, wounded, and struggling to break free from their compulsive behaviors.

Therapists need to thoroughly explore their clients’ cultural context and the impact on their mental health, as addictions can be rooted in trauma. Beyond the often explored areas of trauma such as abuse, neglect, and divorce, with ethnic clients there’s a need to go deeper and understand the racial trauma of being a minority in the U.S., the neighborhoods they were raised in, and the constellation of factors both within their culture and the dominant, mainstream culture that contributes to their sense of self.

Racial trauma refers to the stressful impact or emotional pain of one’s experience with racism and discrimination. Those exposed to racial events may experience posttraumatic symptoms similar to survivors of domestic violence, abuse, and/or sexual assault. Symptoms may include anxiety or depression, health issues, negative core beliefs about oneself, and addiction.

Here in the U.S., Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are most vulnerable due to living under a system of white supremacy. As a first-generation Chinese immigrant to this country, our family had to endure overt and covert forms of racism and discrimination in education, the workplace, and the public sector. The mental strain of hypervigilance around themes of ostracism, mainstream rejection, body image, and being perceived as “the other” can take a toll on an ethnic minority’s physical and mental health.

In addition to battling the external forces of racism, minorities may also have to deal with their own cultural challenges. For Asian-Americans, it may be the duality of trying to navigate two different worldviews—Western autonomy and Eastern collectivism, in which honor to the family and “group-think” rule. This internal pressure to keep the family from being tainted with shame combined with external racism from mainstream society can make one extremely prone to addiction as a means to cope.

An ethnic minority individual in the U.S. may go through an evolution before reaching self-acceptance. Along the way, the individual will grapple with their identity both from their own culture and from American society. The identity is impacted by both major occurrences of racism and prejudices and the often undetectable stress of trying to garner acceptance, validation, and inclusion in everyday life. If these areas are not explored by clinicians, mental health issues including addiction may persist for years to come.