One Black man’s lifelong battle with U.S. racism
Conclusion of a three-part story
According to the Mayo Clinic and other medical experts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is “a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.”
Vietnam War veteran Makolle Williams describes his own suffering from PTSD: “I am 73 years old and still chained to some profoundly terrible memories that keep me awake at night. I am actually afraid to sleep, always listening and watching and proving that I am safe at home,” says Williams, whose post-military experiences were described in the first two parts of this story.
During our conversations with Williams, he pointed out that he first experienced racism in the Air Force and fully believes that this, as well as his combat experience, has heavily contributed to his PTSD.
Blacks in this country often are affected with “racial battle fatigue,” said University of California, Berkeley Associate Psychology Professor Dr. Jose Soto in a 2013 Medical Daily.com article written by Nadia-Elysee Harris. The article also included comments from Dr. Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist and associate director of University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities.
Earlier this summer, Dr. Williams was quoted in a New York Times article on the subject. The MSR subsequently contacted Dr. Williams (no relation to Makolle Williams), who agreed to speak with us on condition that she would not discuss any particulars of Makolle’s case.
We asked Dr. Williams if racism can be related to PTSD.
She responded, “I have actually spoken to veterans who told me that combat experiences didn’t traumatized them, but being harassed, belittled and abused [while in the military] because of their race is traumatizing. Yes, it’s absolutely possible.”
Dr. Williams wrote in a 2013 Psychology Today article that racism and its effects on Black people should be listed as a cause for PTSD and be included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
“You’d think it would be a no-brainer that ongoing, persistent oppression, persecution, racism, stress is going to lead to some negative psychological outcome,” stated Williams. She and others have been studying racism and its psychological effects for several years, but she acknowledged that getting it recognized as a mental health issue “is going to be a while.
“It’s only in the last 10 years that we are getting a nice body of research connecting racism to other sorts of physical and psychological problems. We still have to have a lot more research to support this before mainstream psychology will take it serious enough to make that addition” in the psychiatric diagnostic manual.
“There are only a few of us who [are] actually studying this,” continued Dr. Williams, who is also the clinical director of the Behavioral Wellness Counseling Clinic in Louisville. “We are studying this as fast as we can. I am trying to start a clinic” in Louisville that would specifically treat patients affected by racism.
“I have several clients right now at my clinic, African Americans who are so stressed by [racially hostile] workplace conditions that they are not functioning these days.” These persons also are battling anxiety and depression, two of the many symptoms of PTSD, she pointed out.
Watching Blacks die because of police brutality or gun violence on a regular basis can take a psychological toll, said Dr. Williams. “[When] these things happen they affect the whole community, and particularly the African American community. We have to be conscious and recognize when we see stereotypes in the media, in music, in ads — they’re everywhere.
“We all [are] drenched in these negative messages about Black people. It makes White people afraid or makes them think negative things about Black people, and also makes us feel bad about ourselves. It is making all of us sick. It is making our nation sick.”
We asked Dr. Williams what she thinks can be done.
“What we need to do as African Americans is take care of ourselves and make sure that we have enough resources that when these stressful things happen, they don’t knock us down.” Dr. Williams also stressed the importance of “having people to talk to…who you can vent to when things like this happen.
“I also recommend therapy… I think that helps in coping.” There are Black veteran groups who regularly meet to help one another, she pointed out. “Everybody needs help every now and then.”
More than 50 years have passed since Makolle Williams left home for the military and returned a radically changed man. He lives now with his family in Brooklyn Park and says with evident pride, “Married 34 years and in big love now and forever, four children, two boys, two girls, Nicole, Aaron, Azzayha, Javan, all college grads.”
Fifty years — and yet “profoundly terrible memories” still keep him awake at night.
“Maybe if I had been provided someone to council with when I returned home in 1966, my response to those who [later] attacked me would not have been fatal,” says Makolle Williams.
Makolle Williams wishes to express his gratitude to the following Brooklyn Park law enforcement officials who have assisted him in clearing his name: Chief Craig Envoldsen, Administrative Sergeant Mark Bergeron, Officer Tim Mitchell, and Lt. Jim Pearson.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.