What we can and must do to mitigate our trauma

. Dr. David Hamlar

Our Communities of Color have historically and in the recent past experienced an uptick in trauma. The question is why. Knowing why will help us come up with answers and hopefully a path to curbing these frustrating and heartfelt tragedies.

I am currently enrolled in a course from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) to help describe and correct the health care disparities experienced by Communities of Color. One of the most discussed experiences are the historical and continued trauma inflicted upon the patients who we serve from our communities.

What is trauma? Trauma is a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically and then interferes with your ability to grow and develop. It pains you, and now you’re acting out of pain. It induces fear, and now you’re acting out of fear. 

Trauma is not what happens to you but rather what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you. Trauma is that scarring that makes you less flexible, more rigid, less feeling, and more defended. 

Trauma creates physical, psychological, or emotional harm and adverse effects on the individual and/or group’s ability to function. It can be experienced by an individual, family, or community. It may be direct or indirect.

Stress and trauma exist along a continuum. When activated occasionally, the “fight or flight” system is a good thing. It bypasses the logical decision-making part of our brain and activates survival reactions that protect us from harm. A problem occurs when our system is always “on”— overtaxed by repeated, intense, or chronic stress. The cascade of reactions goes from protecting our lives to damaging our health.

Types of trauma include abuse, neglect, loss, community and national, and secondary and vicarious. How we react is just as important. Most importantly trauma is pain. Those include physical, emotional, social, and cognitive. A major impact may be observed with prolonged, unmitigated trauma. The effects are seen in personal and community cycles of hopelessness and despair; and more importantly, turning to personal choices that do more harm than good. 

This brief article is not the definitive answer to solve our problems that have been building for over 400 years. But it is an opportunity to reflect on what got us here.

What can we do individually and collectively? What resources can we seek? What self-care can we learn and spread? We can begin mitigating these effects of trauma through psychological first aid by listening, providing protection, and connecting helpful networks.

So where do we start? Seek out individuals or organizations to listen to your story. They should listen to both what was said and what went unsaid. The listeners should create or provide safe space for processing what happened. 

Look out for space and time that contributes to a sense of safety. Family, friends, and neighbors should stay present and connected. The most pressing needs—shelter, employment, health, for example—should be identified and met. Always consider alternative resources. And finally, stay connected beyond the immediate aftermath.

Why is this important? A quote from Father Rohr: “If we do not transform our pain, we will assuredly transmit it.” And that is what we are seeing in our communities. It is not an excuse, but it’s at least a way to begin to mitigate the cause from within. It is us who are responsible for us, and it is us who will help answer our problems.

Exemplary is the “21 Days of Peace” driven by Louis King, president, and chief executive of Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis, and Jerry McAfee, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, after seeing the homicide rate rise to 11 a month,

Community and church congregation members are occupying street corners in the most dangerous neighborhoods to at least provide a presence, and it’s working. Since June 2021 homicide numbers are down, just as are rape and aggravated assault

One may ask why this is important from a health perspective. Healthy lifestyles include adequate housing and education, access to food and jobs, and of course safe neighborhoods. In a community already experiencing disparate access and care for goods and services, the increase in non-mitigated stress and trauma builds and further discourages corrective measures and outcomes.

We can do better! But to do so we need to make the effort and be the change!

David Hamlar MD, DDS is an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Minnesota. He specializes craniofacial skull base surgery. He attended Howard University College of Dentistry (DDS) and Ohio State University (MD) and came to Minnesota for his fellowship in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Besides medicine, he is a retired Minnesota National Guardsman achieving the rank of major general. His passion today is empowering students of color to achieve their dreams of entering the medical professions as well as other STEM-oriented careers.