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Boston Globe, PTSlaveryD
Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Theory Links Slavery
and Stress Disorder

Left to right:  Sekou Mims, M.Ed\MSW\LCSW;
Omar Reid Psy.D and
Larry Higginbottom, MSW\LCSW authors of "Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder" stand on the grounds of The Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists.  Beside them is artist Jim Wilson's work "The Eternal Presence," a sculpture created by drawing upon various traditions including the Olmec heads of ancient Mexico and images of contemplating Buddhas.

Proponents Make for a New Diagnosis
By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 11/12/2002

Sekou Mims's son was 16 when he experienced a sudden psychotic breakdown. Over three months, the black teenager had a series of delusions - that white police were following him, that white strangers on a train were staring at him menacingly. He'd hyperventilate walking down the street. All his delusions revolved around racism.

After a month long psychiatric hospitalization, Mims's son recovered. Now, six years later, he attends college part-time and works as a driver and a computer consultant. But Mims, a social worker in the Boston public schools, thought it was strange that the young man had become so obsessed with race. After all, ''the kid didn't go through one-10th of what I went through,'' he said, never mind the racism Mims's father and grandfather experienced as black men in America.

Omar G. Reid is a psychologist who was training at Boston Medical Center at the time of Mims's son's illness. While he wasn't involved in his son's treatment, Reid told Mims that black and Latino males were showing up ''in droves'' with similar symptoms. Today, Reid conducts support groups for troubled black men, many of whom say they can't understand why they feel so much general anger and nervousness when ''my life hasn't been too bad.''

Mims, Reid, and Larry Higginbottom, another black social worker, recently taught a symposium at the Simmons Graduate School of Social Work and are writing a book about what they call ''post-traumatic slavery disorder'' - a derivative of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are holding workshops to propose to fellow professionals that drug abuse, broken families, crime, and low educational attainment in segments of the black community can be directly linked to the trauma of slavery, and that ''black people as a whole are suffering from PTSD,'' Mims said.

These Boston clinicians were not the first to note the lingering psychological effects of slavery. Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint wrote in 2000 about ''posttraumatic slavery syndrome,'' calling it ''a physiological risk for black people that is virtually unknown to white Americans.''

In a book Poussaint co-authored on black suicide, ''Lay My Burden Down,'' he wrote: ''A culture of oppression, the by-product of this nation's development, has taken a tremendous toll on the minds and bodies of black people.''

Now, Mims, Reid, and Higginbottom - none with backgrounds in academia - have taken it upon themselves to try to educate other mental health workers about their theory, and promote a curriculum and therapy based on the idea. They would like to see what they call ''PTSlaveryD'' entered into diagnostic manuals.

''We can't wait for the mainstream to validate us because it'll be the day before we're on our deathbeds,'' Mims said.

Mims, 46, grew up in poverty in Boston and spent a number of his adolescent years in reform school for petty crimes and assaults. Later, he joined the Nation of Islam and worked in human services for the court system and a halfway house, before earning a master's degree in social work.

Reid, 44, grew up in the Nation of Islam and spent 14 years working as a psychologist in Boston Public Schools. He recently earned a doctorate in psychology, and has a practice counseling private clients and contracting with schools for educational assessments.

Higginbottom, 49, a Baptist and one-time stockbroker, worked in community centers in Boston before getting his social work degree. He counsels families through a Department of Social Services contract, and all three men together lead support groups sponsored by various agencies.

Hundreds of years of slavery, followed by decades of legal discrimination and racism, are widely accepted as factors contributing to the poverty of many African-Americans. Poussaint points out in his book that more young black men are in the criminal justice system than in college. But the idea of a specific mental health problem linked to slavery goes a step further.

However, critics argue that these ideas perpetuate a culture obsessed with victimization.

''Some people are just looking for reasons to fail, and this notion of a post-slavery syndrome falls into that category,'' said Ward Connerly, an African-American who campaigned against affirmative action in California. ''There is great harm done with something like this. We don't want young black kids to grow up thinking they are weak and can't look after themselves.''

In their working paper, Reid, Mims, and Higginbottom lay out a case for links between slavery and behavior in the black community today. They point out that slaves were punished if they knew how to read, and draw a comparison to the stigma attached to education today. ''If you go to any elementary or middle school today and talk to black kids, they say, `I failed all my classes, it's cool,''' Reid said.

They write about how male slaves were not allowed to stay with their families, and then cite the number of poor black men today who father numerous children with different women.

One notable difference between the writings of these social workers and that of Poussaint is that Poussaint calls the trauma associated with slavery a syndrome, not a disorder. A disorder is something much more specific, while ''the trauma of slavery goes across all diagnoses and no diagnoses,'' Poussaint said in an interview.

''There is a background anxiety there for black people, like a background noise affecting their day-to-day operations in the world,'' he said. ''Slavery was profoundly traumatic for black people and we're not over it yet.''

Poussaint would like to see the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association set up committees to study the mental health implications of racism, but he said these ideas produce ''a lot of rolling of the eyes,'' among other mental health professionals.

However, there is plenty of research to back up the idea that trauma can resound through multiple generations, whether the trauma originates with the treatment of Native Americans, Holocaust victims, or Cambodian genocide, said Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist, trauma specialist, and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and their Children.

Danieli said politicians are resistant to the idea of multigenerational trauma, because it brings up the specter of reparations, and because addressing long-term trauma rarely fits in with short-term political considerations.

The treatment for post-traumatic slavery disorder that Higginbottom, Reid, and Mims propose varies depending on whether someone is suffering from depression, schizophrenia, or something else, but it involves examining the individual's family history as a way to understand his or her present problems.

''We have to take a more culturally relevant look,'' said Higginbottom. ''Somebody's got to be the disciples.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/12/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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