We must take our mental health care as serious as we take our physical health care.

-Tonya McKenzie

by Tonya McKenzie

This essay contains discussions and descriptions of sexual violence, child abuse, and murder

There are some things that you never forget, like the sound of a car screeching down the street and slamming into one of your neighbors or the bombastic sound of a gunshot and the sight of the damage that the bullet has done. You will remember the sight and smell of the burned flesh and the smoke from the gun.

You will remember where you were and what you were doing when that one incident changed your life and it only takes a little thing like a scene on TV to trigger your Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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It’s a feeling of hypervigilance or always being on edge. There are times when you can’t concentrate, or you experience spans of time with constant aggression. There are times when you may exhibit incredibly reckless behavior and times when there are holes in your memory. There are moments of sudden intense anxiety and sleeplessness. These are all symptoms of PTSD.

Many people think of PTSD as something that you only get when you have been in the military or involved in a traumatic incident as a police officer. The truth is it’s so much more than that. More and more, people are becoming aware of the the truth that a NON-Combat form of PTSD can develop based on experiences in your everyday environments.

Witnessing domestic violence, experiencing or witnessing child abuse, or even watching a loved one suffer from a debilitating disease or condition are all circumstances that can trigger this debilitating condition.

For those of us living in communities riddled with violence, this often makes us into spectators of bloody fights and gun violence. Watching a bullet tear through flesh and the suffering, or sometimes death, that follows is not a scene that can easily be washed away from the memory.

Listening to your parents scream and fight, suddenly hearing the thud of bodies hitting the walls and floor while someone is being thrown around is not a sound that can easily be erased from the memory.

Watching a disagreement between two kids after school turn into a fist fight and end in bloodshed is not a scene that we have not at least heard about.

Watching, hearing, and experiencing all of these situations unfold can leave someone with PTSD,and even witnessing something as common as a car accident can cause symptoms of the disorder to (re)surface. 

The causes are medically stated as:

  • directly experiencing the traumatic event
  • being a witness to a traumatic event
  • learning that the traumatic events occurred to a close family member or close friend; cases of actual or threatened death must have been violent or accidental
  • experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic events

Recently, Ste’Vante Clark, the brother of Stephen Clark, the unarmed man murdered by police in Sacramento while standing in his grandmother’s yard, faced a barrage of criticism for his behavior during TV interviews and even at the funeral. Not long after Stephon’s death, the public learned that this was the second brother that he had lost.

Recently, Ste’Vante was arrested for threatening to kill or seriously injure someone. Many have come out in defense of this young man, speculating that he suffers from PTSD. This may very well be true. The characteristics include irritability, aggressive behavior, reckless or self-destructive behavior, and hypervigilance.

Thankfully, following this encounter with police, Ste’Vante did receive mental health treatment. As tragic as losing his brothers are, an even worse scenario would be his family losing another family member to the criminal justice system because the proper treatment of his mental wounds was not given.

At just four years old, I witnessed my the murder of my mother’s boyfriend in our home. Three men busted into our quiet apartment, proceeded to shoot my mother in the back as she tried to protect her boyfriend, as his young son looked on. They left a bloody scene and a dead body in the house with us.

I have gone on to live a semi-productive, crime free life, but in my early adulthood, I realized that I was incredibly angry, aggressive, and hypervigilant. It would lead me to physical altercations, ferocious arguments, fits of tears, and unhealthy habits. I was able to begin recognizing my triggers and learning to navigate through life in a way that kept things from getting to the extreme stages.

Feelings of anxiety is also a prominent symptom of PTSD. When I felt these attacks coming on, I developed breathing techniques and started to simply remove myself from atmospheres that brought them on. It was a process of acknowledging that something was wrong and resolving to not let it control my life. Although that may sound simple, it’s really not. The other young child that was with me when the murder happened was not as lucky. He has been in prison since 2002.

At the age of thirteen, and again in college, I was sexually assaulted while I slept. I woke up to things happening without my consent and against my will. In both instances, I was able to escape the situation as soon as I realized what was going on, but for over a decade, the residue of the incident prevented me from sleeping well.

There was fear and an edge of paranoia that prevented me from drifting off to sleep, even when I was tired and fatigued. Complete exhaustion was the only thing that would get me to sleep, but bad dreams and internal unsettled emotions would quickly awaken me.

This is classic PTSD. Reliving the trauma when exposed to anything that triggers the memory of the incident is common is this disorder. Triggers can be recognized by urges to avoid situations, scenes, and even certain people that remind you of the incident.

For me, sleep was a major avoidance. Avoiding sleep caused mood swings, lack of performance in school and work, and avoiding social situation where I might run into my predatory abusers.

In life, things happen that we have no control over. However, in the African American community, we have a unique opportunity to directly affect the mental health of our youth and improve the quality of life for our families.  

One in 5 people is affected by mental illness. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. The key to decreasing these numbers is to start early and commit to taking better care of each other. We must work to decrease the rates of child abuse and neglect on our communities, and we must also work to destigmatize seeking mental health care.

Kids that experience things like domestic violence, gun violence, and child abuse become teenagers and young adults with PTSD symptoms. Only about one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40% of whites. Not getting treatment and learning to manage PTSD can turn to depression, bipolar disorder, or other personality disorders.

Many times, this can lead to some type of conflict with the criminal justice system, which can begin a whole new cycle of issues. PTSD is one of the more common psychiatric disorders in youth detention facilities, with the probability of PTSD being at least 1 in 10 detained youth.

Common symptoms of NON-Combat PTSD are:

  • Easily irritable or angry
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior (e.g. unprotected sex, reckless driving)
  • Easily startled
  • Problems with concentration
  • Difficulties sleeping, including falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • A complete lapse in memory of or a feeling of blacking out for parts of the trauma.
  • Perpetual negative expectations of the world
  • Continuous, misattributed blame of self or others about the traumatic event
  • Persistent negative emotional state and/or the inability to experience positive emotions
  • Loss of interest or participation in significant activities or activities once interested in
  • Feelings of detachment from others, as well as feeling like others cannot relate or understand the trauma and emotional burden
  • Unwanted, distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)
  • Recurring trauma-related nightmares
  • Flashbacks – involuntary and vivid re-experiencing of the traumatic experience(s)
  • Intense emotional distress and/or noticeable physiological reactions to trauma reminders

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We must take our mental health care as serious as we take our physical health care. We can start by understanding the impact that our environments can have and by working towards making our homes as safe and functional as possible, keeping elements that could lead to traumatic circumstances away from our homes as much as possible.  

Violence can have no sanctuary in our homes. The abuse must be acknowledged and stopped. To ignore it and let it continue is welcoming long-term effects, not just on individuals, but on families and communities, leading to generational dysfunctions that makes it even harder to break the cycle.

You can make a difference. As a community, if we acknowledge our contribution to this preventable condition that affects almost 40% of our youth/young adults and work to reverse it, the results will be positive and dynamic for our communities as a whole for generations to come.

Tonya McKenzie is an entrepreneur and principal of a public relations firm in Los Angeles. She has long been a child advocate and staunch supporter of children s rights. She co-authored the F.I.T. Kids Manual utilized by the Pittsburg School District (California), established several unique youth wellness programs and served on the Youth Council for Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover. She discusses these stories and many more in the forthcoming book, A Child’s Memories of Cartoons & Murder.

Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.