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Posted under: Life Style Interviews Health

Terrie Williams on the psychological impacts of racism

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Blavity sat down with mental health advocate and author Terrie Williams to talk more about the ways in which the mental health of our communities are at risk due to the unsafe racial terrain of the United States. Read the interview below for her insights on ways to support yourself and loved ones through turbulent times.

Blavity: Tell us more about yourself, your book, and how long you've been working on and writing about mental health issues in the black community. 

Terrie Williams: I would say that I began to realize that mental health issues were something that were never really talked about. I had not known anyone that would talk about having mental health issues. I just knew that there were days where I could barely get up and I realized that something was wrong. I knew that I needed help. I always had an interest in psychology and that led me to my field of social work. So I was always very sensitive to how people were doing. I recognized that I was suffering from depression and that I needed to get help. It was not something I could talk to my mother about, it was not something normal to address.

When I shared my story in Essence Magazine, thousands of people wrote in, expressing they were dealing with the same issues. And that's when I knew I had to share my story. No one in my family understood what any of it meant. The book Black Pain came out about six or seven years ago, and I still get mail everyday from people trying to describe their pain, or happy [to] know there was someone out there who was feeling what they are feeling.

B: Let's talk about intergenerational trauma, and the ways stress and anxiety can be passed down in your genes. Not only can oppression be an attack on the mind but it's an attack on your physical well-being as well. What are your thoughts on the prevalence of intergenerational trauma in our communities and what are ways for us to combat this? 

TW: It's obvious that the good things and the negative things get passed on from one generation to the next. We must recognize that this is a reality. There are so many of us who haven't really put a name to what our pain is, there's something that's hurting, they are lashing out in certain ways without understanding what the root is. And we, of course, especially people of color, tend to not talk about our issues.

Many of my white friends and colleagues will express in a heartbeat that they have x,y, and z conditions and that they see their therapists, etc. And for many people of color, there's something shameful about having mental illness. But all of us inherit unresolved pain, wounds, trauma and scars of our parents. More of us need to be more mindful of what it is that we are passing on to our kids, because they miss nothing. They watch, hear and feel everything. It's important to encourage everyone in our communities to share what they're feeling.

B: There have been various studies that have shown that black people are viewed to be more terrifying than they actually are. For example, police tend to view black children as older and more guilty than they actually are, or black people as superhuman. What are your thoughts on the psychological effects of being perceived that way, and how does that increase the likelihood of mental health problems?

TW: The psychological effects are crippling. I do believe that the hardest job in a America is to be a black man, and the darker the completion, the more they are perceived to be terrifying. You recognize pretty early how people view you and it has lasting effects. I just think that so many brothers need to talk to a therapist.

I mentored two young boys who were members of the bloods, and one of my friends who was a therapist did several sessions with them and they began to express more about their feelings. As adults, we should share more openly if and when we do see a therapist so we begin to normalize it. These are things that need to be talked about in order to heal.

Blavity: Elaborate, what are ways we can normalize therapy in our communities? 

TW: I think, in a nutshell, it is to share our stories with one another. I've talked to teenagers about things I've shared with my therapist, and illustrate to them the way my therapist helped me work through things. How will any of us ever know unless someone decides to share their story? That's the way we begin to heal. Share your stories with one another. We need to demystify the whole process.

Blavity: What are your thoughts on the prevalence of police brutality videos online, should we watch them?

TW: It's devastating. It has a very deep lasting and profound impact on your psyche. I have made it my practice, as someone who is deeply affected by [it,] it's gut wrenching to watch that kind of thing over and over again. I just know I had to stop watching the news, making sure I'm skimming the news, You must protect yourself and realize what you're consuming.


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Blavity Staff Writer