We need to respond to PTSD with community care
It is also important to recognize the intersections of mental health and patriarchal white supremacy.
by Jamila Mitchell
This article discusses suicide, r/pe, and other topics that may be triggering for some readers.
For some reason, I found myself in pain on the floor of my bathroom with a closed door, empty pill bottles, and spilt bleach. Frantically, I reached out to people through my phone and Facebook contacts. All I knew was that I wanted to run away from the world through a painful death.
A year prior to that day, a therapist had described me as a “survival beast” living with psychological conditions straight out of the book for childhood post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). A year later, another psychologist informed me that there is indeed a path to recovery from PTSD. Even as every person deserves access to mental healthcare, it is community care that is a critical part of this recovery.
RELATED: PTSD is more common than you think
PTSD programs the brain to remain in a constant state of reliving traumatic memories, both consciously and unconsciously. As a result, the strongest survival emotions dominate one’s thoughts. This is due to the changes in the brain caused by chronic stress. Under neurotypical circumstances, brain systems tend to healthily analyze and mediate present information or experiences. For people with PTSD, the ability to rationalize the present is greatly impaired. For instance, at the time of this writing, I’m having a laboring panic attack although I’m psychically at rest at home. My brain is telling me everything is going wrong and that it is going to get even worse.
The reason is because the amygdalae parts of my brain are overactive. These amygdalae make up the emotional center of our brain that processes memory and impacts our decisions. This is where our survival instincts come from. Chronic stress disorders cause the amygdalae to create extreme sensory sensitivity, or hypervigilance, to factors such as police sirens. Unfortunately, PTSD largely involves reactions to memory as much, or even more than, current factors. Traumatic memories become the focal point of life, because to those of us with PTSD, traumatic memories feel real.
Experience and information are predominantly processed as memory within the brain’s hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex to make decisions. As an example, when someone gets into a car accident, they might process what happened as understanding the risk of taking off too quickly at a green light because intersecting traffic often speeds late through yellow lights.
Since the accident itself is what felt like a threat, the traumatic experience may disrupt one’s ability to process what actually happened. Thus, one may develop increased anxiety about driving, because the memory of the accident was only stored as trauma without having processed what actually happened.
Chronic stress reduces the function of our prefrontal cortex causing difficulty with awareness and decision-making. Experiences such as shot-wounds, abandonment, and rape tend to lead to a hippocampus full of unprocessed traumatic memories. Overactive amygdalae with an underactive prefrontal cortex is a recipe for experiences like flashbacks, hypervigilance, depression, memory loss, and disassociation.
This is why people with PTSD and other stress disorders need better understanding and care from their community. It is also important to recognize the intersections of mental health and patriarchal white supremacy. From the earliest stages of development, Black children experience detrimental forms of discrimination based on race. Unfortunately, it worsens as we get older—or, at least, we become more aware of it.
As my beloved mentor once said to me, Black people have a target on our backs. Psychology seems to be reluctant in confronting the damage to our psyche that anti-Blackness causes. Racialized terror, such as over-policing and surveillance, are traumatic experiences that can create PTSD. Personally, as a Black transwoman, I have to confront the fears and dangerous experiences I face due to the systemic discrimination that leavea many like me grappling with homelessness, human trafficking, or getting killed.
We commonly discuss accountability, but are reluctant to observe the objectivity of chronic mental illnesses such as PTSD. Self-awareness in present conditions are more an untreated symptom than simply a challenge. An important first step in caring for people with PTSD is respecting that it is a brain disorder requiring professional treatment and not minimalizing symptoms to simplistic life choices. Usually, our emotions and even the actions we’re making are beyond what we are mindful of.
Community care is needed to help people with PTSD to be present. It starts with active listening and support based on what you’ve learned from us. Unfortunately, western society indoctrinates a sense of shame in being vulnerable. So, when someone expresses extreme stress, paranoia, or depressive feelings, remember that it has taken a lot of time and energy and courage for them to share this with you. Please, focus on listening and not dwelling on your personal opinions on what they are saying.
Then, simply ask what they need. PTSD-induced emotions and behaviors are based on the psychological belief that one is presently in danger or headed towards it. Even if we do not mention any memories (often times, we may be unaware of what memories we have outside of flashbacks), our whole selves are in survival mode. Listen, ask what is needed during PTSD-linked episodes, and help in tangible ways that you are able to.
PTSD requires treatment by trained psychological professionals and there are effective programs designed to reduce or even cure the disorder. However, a healthy support system can exist outside of often inaccessible mental health professionals. In very traumatic ways, violation of trust, abuse, and/or abandonment have been very real experiences at a critical stage of development for someone with PTSD.
We are just searching for a life with people that disprove the traumatic narrative we only know. We crave a world where abuse, abandonment, and manipulation are entirely replaced by consistent acts of love so that our minds can grow to be at peace. The effects of trauma on the brain are reversible, I’ve learned. A compassionate community of understanding, love, and kinship are nutrients of recovery everyone living with PTSD deserves.
Jamila Mitchell is a writer that comes from across the disciplines of business management, non-profit development, and community organizing. Educated in economics and business management at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Rader School of Business, Jamila has used her knowledge assets on neoclassical economics as an advocate and grant writer for various causes such as mental health treatment. She has worked on numerous political campaigns including the Fight For $15 pro-union national campaign, voter rights, and various President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.