Ask an Expert: Race, Trauma, and Mental Health With Briana Woods-Jaeger

May 31, 2023
Briana Woods-Jaeger

Rollins Ask an Expert is an ongoing series from the Rollins School of Public Health that aligns research experts with pressing public health topics.

By Karina Antenucci

Research and health surveillance data point to a growing mental health crisis among America’s youth that spans decades, with a particular toll on youth of color. Lived experiences of discrimination in housing, education, and health care; daily exposures to racism online, in person, and in the media; as well as a lack of systemic support and understanding of this chronic stress and trauma has all led to a toll on the mental—and physical—health of youth of color.

For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021, indicators for poor mental health increased for youth across the board. Suicide rates increased for all races, and were highest among American Indian or Alaska Native youth (16 percent), followed by Black youth (14 percent), and multiracial youth (12 percent).  

In this piece in our Ask an Expert series, we speak with Briana Woods-Jaeger, PhD, associate professor of behavioral, social, and health education sciences and vice chair for equity engagement at Rollins, to discuss the mental health effects of racial trauma and violence on youths, and what should be done to address it.

What are the mental health consequences of racial violence and trauma?

There are many consequences for both mental and physical health. Regarding mental health, there’s robust literature documenting that racial discrimination is related to youth depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. Now people are expanding a bit in terms of outcomes looking at traumatic stress and different manifestations that we might not have previously focused on as much, such as suicidal ideation.

A recent study linked racism experienced at school to suicidal ideation among Black and Latinx youth, and there is increasing research and theory in this area. Because experiences of racism are often chronic, they represent a unique exposure to stress and trauma, which is increasingly recognized by the mental health community. This chronicity is also related to things like allostatic load, which is physical wear and tear on the body. When your stress system is activated chronically, there are physical health consequences.

Why is this a pervasive and serious issue?

It is so pervasive on multiple levels—interpersonally, institutionally (such as in schools), and structurally (such as the way different systems interact like the school-to-prison pipeline). It’s affecting youth across their developmental trajectory, which makes it really important for us to pay attention to and recognize that solutions will need to be multilayered. But it is also critical that we don’t lose hope. There are things we can do. This is something that is preventable and addressable.

What’s the first step to addressing this issue, in your opinion?

A multilevel approach is needed. We need to be tackling the structures and systems that are perpetuating racism, particularly when thinking about youth. These are things that are happening, for example, within schools,  health care including mental health care, juvenile justice, and child welfare. A critical examination is needed of how racism manifests in these systems and is affecting youth along with direct action like changing policies and practices within institutions. It will take a long-term commitment.

How can caregivers help address mental health of youths affected by racial trauma right now?

Immediately, we can change our responses to youths who are struggling. Some of the behavioral responses to trauma that may be perceived as acting out are often punished rather than given support. Particularly we see this with Black youth because there is a bias where people stereotype them as threatening already. So, either providing therapeutic or general supportive responses rather than punitive responses is one thing that would be helpful.

We also need to equip the adults in children’s lives to be able to speak about what is happening and provide positive support. A positive social support person in your family, in school, or in a mentor can buffer some of the mental health effects of racism.

It’s important to take the burden off youths from caring for themselves so young people see that we care and we’re sharing the load with them. Listen, validate, affirm, and provide social support are some concrete strategies.

What kind of work are you doing right now in the field to help support these youths?

We have three different projects tackling the mental health effects of racism in different ways. 

The first is called the HEART Project, or Healing Through Education, Affirmation, and Rising Together. In collaboration with Clayton County Public Schools here in Georgia, we’re doing workshops with youth and caregivers, such as faith leaders, teachers, parents, and mentors to really give them the education and language around what racial trauma is, understanding how it is impacting Black youth, and what they can do to support a person or young child in their lives who may be experiencing this.

We’re studying how well-equipped they feel to respond. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel like “I don’t know what to do. It’s so big. It’s happening so much. How do I respond?” We want youth and caregivers to understand it and then know what to do in the moment. Sometimes people underestimate the power of relationships and how we respond when we see distress. That is something we can do right here and now. 

For our Link for Equity study, we’re working with Minnesota Public Schools to train school staff broadly about what racial trauma and racism is and how to support youth with supportive rather than punitive responses. The goal of this study is to determine if antiracist trauma-informed care can effectively prevent school violence. 

Another project is our Youth Empowered Advocating for Health (YEAH) work in collaboration with Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta and Kansas City. This is more about promoting critical consciousness, which is about helping youth to critically reflect on their experiences and come together with supportive adults to act on some of these oppressions they are experiencing. This is more of a resistance approach with activism. So, there are ways to cope with or act on the racism that youth experience. We are working with both of these strategies and how we can integrate them into community.

How can we all do better?

We should all pay attention to the narratives we consume and the ones we perpetuate. There are unquestioned stories we tell ourselves or that have been told to us about youth of color that we sometimes unintentionally perpetuate and that can cause harm.

Something we can do ourselves is critically self-reflect on our own biases and put in the work to address those so that when we are working with youth, they know we are authentically trying to understand, validate, and support them. It opens up so many opportunities.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard from our youth partners and research participants that they just want to be recognized and acknowledged, both for the painful experiences they have and also for their strengths and what they can contribute to society. That is something all of us can do.

How is the South doing compared to other areas of the country in terms of support for and acknowledgment of youth with mental health trauma due to race?

One intervention to address racial trauma is Black history knowledge. In one of our recent studies, we heard directly from Black youth that they want to know their history, and not just slavery and Jim Crow but also knowing the strengths of Black people in this country, and this can be an intervention for mental health. Black history is being challenged in schools, particularly in the South. Unfortunately, the experiences of racism are so pervasive with social media across the country, you can’t really escape it anywhere but some places have less supportive systems and more unjust barriers.

On the other side of things, we have amazing community leaders and organizations doing great work in this area in Georgia and Atlanta. We have both. So, it’s critical that we recognize that and put energy into how we nurture the good work that’s happening and uplift it more. 

Briana Woods-Jaeger, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of behavioral, social, and health education sciences at the Rollins School of Public Health. Her research focuses on partnering with communities to reduce and eliminate health disparities associated with stress and trauma, particularly in Black youth.