We’ve heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder applied to those who have served in combat or gone through a particularly distressing or emotionally damaging situation. Can long-term exposure to systemic racism also trigger similar symptoms?

As Americans continue to explore issues of race and move toward justice and healing, the term “trauma” is being used more frequently to define the pain suffered by people of color. To address that, Siena’s Health Promotion and Franciscan Mission offices recently hosted a trauma Zoom for students. “Through Trauma Towards Trust” was held on June 16, and other such discussions will be planned in the future. 

Racial trauma comprises the mental and physical effects and consequences that Black, indigenous peoples, and other people of color experience after being chronically exposed to racism. It can occur when an individual directly experiences racism; it also can be passed through generations. It has only recently become an area of study by physicians and mental health clinicians. 

Kate Kaufman Burns, director of health promotion at Siena, said the College stands ready to work with students impacted by racism, and to help facilitate their working with each other. Her office is also collecting data on how to deliver the best services in the best ways.

“When students are sharing their pain in a safe and affirming space, they can reinforce and support each other.” 

She said in addition to one-on-one conversation between a student and counselor, a student-led, peer-to-peer model of support and outreach can be very resonant and successful.

“We have to start thinking outside the box on how to deliver mental health services to our college students, and we have to be more innovative than ever in how we safely and meaningfully meet their needs.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education published  “Students of Color Are Not OK” earlier this week, cautioning that “student distress is only going to get worse this fall.

“In the throes of dual national crises, students of color will need quick access to mental-health-care options that reflect their experiences, recreate their support systems remotely, and acknowledge the physical and emotional tolls the past few months have taken.”