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'Trauma can be far-reaching and contagious': How hate crimes can trigger post-traumatic stress

Dr. Anton Hart explained how psychoanalysis helps patients cope with trauma as a result of discrimination.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Anton Hart explained how psychoanalysis helps patients cope with trauma as a result of discrimination.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often correlated with life-threatening or explicitly traumatic events – like being in a war or seeing someone get killed. But the nuances of PTSD are visible with exposure to everyday microaggressions, discrimination and racism. Small things can add up, resulting in toxic levels of stress in an individual.

Dr. Anton Hart, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air with host Don Marsh that even in cases of “everyday suffering” as opposed to instant traumatic events “it’s not such a far stretch to identify PTSD.”

The disorder manifests itself through depression, fear, addictions [and] “every way that human beings suffer” – which Hart said makes PTSD hard to diagnose and understand, even by those who have it. 

“When you’ve been through profound war trauma, it can be hard to imagine how a person, who’s been through something not literally life threatening, can exhibit the same symptoms you do having gone through a matter of life and death,” Hart explained.

That is where discriminatory trauma comes into play. Hart gave the example of racial profiling, such as when a person of color is suspected of shoplifting and is followed in the store.

Even though being followed in a store might not seem a big deal to some, “the experience is profoundly disturbing because it represents a form of profiling and arguably racism, such as that you are impacted in a way that immediately links to the history of oppression of your people … slavery and Jim Crow,” Hart added.

He made the case that the nation is collectively suffering from post-traumatic stress.

“We are living in a country that is a post-slavery nation. In slavery, in that kind of oppression, everybody suffers – not just those who were enslaved, but those who enslaved as well, who can’t stand to bear the responsibility, the shame, the guilt associated with our nation’s legacy in that regard,” Hart said.

That history has contributed to the current state of political divisiveness, where certain rhetoric has enabled seething issues of hate and dispute.

“People are complicated, they have many aspects [of] themselves and they follow cues from their leaders … particularly when they’re at the margins,” Hart explained. “So when leaders legitimize hate and fearmongering, then that is closer to the surface than we might wish.”

He cited the recent shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue, and explained that even a tragic event happening hundreds of miles away can still have a local impact.

“We wish that things wouldn’t have the power to spread as vividly and emotionally as they do, and yet we know that trauma can be far-reaching and contagious, particularly in the era of the internet, where people are brought right into horrific scenes and hear from people involved,” Hart said.

He explained how psychoanalysis helps patients cope with trauma as a result of discrimination. Psychoanalysts and psychologists often attempt to guide patients towards articulating and understanding their experience.

“One of the most dangerous, toxic things in people’s emotional lives is having a painful experience, but leaving it unformulated, leaving it unarticulated and therefore not being able to think about it and yet being subject to it,” he said.

Hart added that it’s not an overnight process and that it’s less about “getting rid of the [bad experiences] through catharsis” and more about processing and claiming them.

“There’s no one size fits all … we want to encourage people to find a safe enough context within which to talk – sometimes that’s psychotherapy, sometimes that’s to a spiritual leader, sometimes it’s to a friend … in order to start the process of healing.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
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