A quick internet search of “mental health therapy” typically will yield fairly consistent results. Virtually every article will include an element of behavior modification on the part of the patient as a goal of treatment. Most treatment plans involve empowering the patient with coping skills and the confidence to use them. In short, mental health therapy historically has been patient-centric; what does the patient need to do to overcome anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue they are facing? But a new paradigm in mental health therapy for persons of color is emerging that turns conventional wisdom on its head and it is popping up across college campuses nationwide. Behold “racial battle fatigue.”
The term racial battle fatigue was first coined by Dr. William Smith in research at the University of Utah in 2003:
In general, Racial Battle Fatigue explains how the social environment (e.g., institutions, policies, practices, traditions, groups and individuals) perpetuates race-related stressors that adversely affect the health and academic achievement of Students of Color and the health, professional productivity, and retention among Faculty of Color. Whether it is from the constant stereotyping that Students of Color face on campus or the epistemological racism that Faculty of Color endure as they seek tenure and promotion, People of Color are chronically having race-related stress-responses in historically white institutions and environments that consumes valuable time and energy.
The concept had laid dormant, for the most part, until 2015. That’s when Think Progress ran a piece on follow-up research at Penn State called: “Black People Aren’t Making Things Up: The Science Behind Racial Battle Fatigue:”
“The results of our study suggest that the notion of racial battle fatigue could be a very real phenomenon that might explain how individuals can go from the experience of racism to the experience of a serious mental health disorder,” said Soto, head investigator at Pennsylvania State University. “While the term is certainly not trying to say that the conditions are exactly what soldiers face on a battlefield, it borrows from the idea that stress is created in chronically unsafe or hostile environments.”
Atlanta Black Star Followed up in November 2016 with “Racial Battle Fatigue is Real: Victims of Racial Micoagressions are Stressed Like Soldiers in War.” By March 2017, students at Virginia Commonwealth University were claiming to suffer from racial battle fatigue:
Taneasha White, a VCU senior, has started the, “The Black Minds Matter Project,” to hold events from Monday until Wednesday to discuss mental health in the African-American community.
One topic the event’s organizers identified in the black community is “racial battle fatigue.”
An event organizer told RichmondMag that her racial battle fatigue “comes from racist microaggressions” that accumulate throughout a given day.
Now, students at Lawrence University in Appleton are claiming to suffer from racial battle fatigue:
She arrived at Lawrence University four years ago excited about the economics courses, nice financial aid package and beautiful campus about four hours north of her southeast Chicago home. Soon after, she got a counselor.
A black student in a predominantly white community, Adair Ball felt overwhelmed by racial microaggressions — actions and remarks based on her race, marking her as out of place. Each one may seem insignificant individually, but taken together they were a constant weight to Adair Ball.
Adair Ball ultimately started seeing a counselor, a white man, who she complained to the Appleton Post-Crescent expected her to modify her behavior (which is fairly standard psychotherapy orthodoxy):
“It was basically, ‘How do you be white in the situation or not let it get to you?'” Adair Ball said. “With Kadihjia (her new counselor, Kadihjia Kelly), it’s like, yes, you be angry because that is some messed up stuff.”
Racism is not Adair Ball’s problem to solve. Being validated in her frustrations and supported in healing is a load off her shoulders, Adair Ball said.
“My counselor before, I love him, but it was like everything had to have a solution,” Adair Ball said. “But there are some things that don’t make sense, like racism doesn’t make sense. There’s not a solution I can necessarily take on and be responsible for.”
Kelly is a mental health therapist in the Fox Valley. The approach she appears to have espoused to Adair Ball, that the patient isn’t ultimately responsible for her behavior or finding a solution, seems to run counter to conventional psychotherapy wisdom. From WebMD:
Remember, therapy involves evaluating your thoughts and behaviors, identifying stresses that contribute to your condition, and working to modify both(emphasis ours). People who actively participate in therapy recover more quickly and have fewer relapses.
The goal is to learn coping techniques and problem-solving skills(emphasis ours) that can help a person regain a sense of control and balance in their life. This is accomplished by an interactive, solution-focused approach that addresses acute challenges to the individual such as anxiety and depression that the patient is experiencing.
Our challenge as therapists is often to help patients understand that they can’t live well by trying to cut away parts of themselves (memories, thoughts, feelings, wishes) that they don’t know what to do with. The cutting away just won’t work. Therapists can help their patients think creatively and productively about what to do or not do about unwanted realities. Better to learn how to live as well as we can with what we’ve got – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and who we are than to suffer the illusion that we get to erase what we don’t want from our lives.
Other sources we found also point out that therapists will often suggest that a patient remove themselves from an environment that may be at the root of their problems. This might include an abusive spouse or parent. If Kelly is going to blame environment, ubiquitous racism, for Adair Ball’s mental health issues, then the conventional prescription would be for Adair Ball to remove herself from predominantly white communities.
As for some of the “microagressions” causing Adair Ball stress:
The peer who mistakes her for another black student with braids and glasses. The customer who tells her to smile more at work. The professor who chooses Adair Ball’s hometown south Chicago as the setting for an imagined scenario about drug cartels.
“That econ professor — I could go back and forth and have a dialogue with him about how that’s wrong. But he grades me,” Adair Ball said. “So I could say things but not if I want to succeed in a system that is domineered by him and people like him.”
Adair Ball’s example are similar to lists of microagressions floating around the internet. Arguably, most appear to fit in the category of unintended slights(at worst) than overt racism:
“You are a credit to your race.” “You are so articulate.” Asking an Asian person to help with a Math or Science problem.
“When I look at you, I don’t see color.” “America is a melting pot.” “There is only one race, the human race.”
“I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends.” “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”
“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”
Of course, it’s possible that millennial African Americans being raised with the notion that they are bombarded 24/7 with racism, whether they really are or not, may indeed be impacting their mental health. So racial battle fatigue could, in fact, be real. Even if the perceived cause is not. But the impact of a therapy philosophy where the patient isn’t expected to change but the environment around her is spreading beyond issues of race would be profound.