POST TRAUMATIC SLAVE SYNDROME: Are you really ready to hear the stories of brutality and mal treatment inside the therapy room?

If  you feel like you are free falling every-time a client says something that is racially charged I encourage you to lean into that feeling. That sense of fear, dread and hopelessness is actually a very good starting point because it is what will guide you as you begin to explore your own unconscious bias. In this article I will outline how practitioners can support their clients who have been affected by racist behaviour, from a phenomenological and humanistic perspective.

Trauma is something often referred  to in therapy as an experience which, “involves events that pose significant threat (physical, emotional, or psychological) to the safety of the victim or loved ones/friends and are overwhelming and shocking. Many individuals exposed to traumatic events experience a range of post traumatic psychophysiological reactions”  (American Psychological Association 2017 p.3). Therapists can tend to any trauma brought on by acts of racism by recognising this and being empathic! It does not need to be intellectualised, your client needs you to hear their story with the same level of respect and care that you would give, any other client group suffering from symptoms of Post-traumatic stress. 

According to Dr. Joy DeGruy many individuals who are recognised as being of African heritage, are living with symptoms of post-traumatic stress that are uniquely linked to intergenerational trauma and pervasive socio-economic political discrimination. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is the mal adaptive behaviours adopted by this client group in order to survive, as a result of shackled and mental slavery both past and present. Many aspects of the individual are affected it, “leads to an inhibition of mind, body and spiritual beliefs and actions” where your client may “experience poor educational attainment, live in bad conditions and have a poor diet…It may cause various pathological conditions and diseases. Most importantly, it may cause an individual to perform the act of suicide due to hopeless state of mind.” (SyndromesPedia 2016). 

So,  if  you  are an advocate for mental health I would encourage you to spend  some time maybe twenty minutes or more to answer the following questions, without reading ahead. If while reading the questions a specific client comes to mind please pause and record how you feel emotionally, physically and any words that come to mind.

So, here goes.

  1. How would I address a client who has had to  flee a war-torn country?
  2. How might I respond to someone who reports surviving a sexual attack?
  3. How could I attend to a client who has witnessed a car accident? 
  4. Now picture a young man African man telling you about being forced off the road, pulled out of his car dragged to the  grown and thrown violently into the back of a van, how would you support him
  5. Now imagine this story however picture the men dragging this young man  are police  officers who have provided no indication as to what they are going to do nor why, how might this change how you attend to the client? 

Doing this  exercise  is  a way to  notice and work with the phenomenological  aspects of  racism that become internalised. If you  felt like  the scenario laid out for  you in  question number four sounded like a weird  kidnapping story in a movie, I have to  reinforce that it is a reality for some. That is what happens to many men of darker skin colour at the hands  of police officers for no  other reason that they happen to have darker skin and happen to be driving a nice car. You as the therapist need to be able to hear such a story and not immediately try to rationalise why the police were justified to use extreme force, you need to  acknowledge that this may not be a one off isolated occurrence, you need to be  able to imagine the level of fear and anxiety that situation may evoke in order to tend to such a client.  Depending on how light or dark your  skin is you may  be completely oblivious , have some awareness or be able to  relate to  this completely. Any justification or reasoning as to why such  an occurrence  is  not racially motivated is a denial of the clients’ experience.

Distancing oneself through the denial of the cerebral reactions to the word ‘race’ is an  example of suppression, something  that we often discourage our clients from doing. Given that the horrific images and stories of what it takes to ‘conquer’ a country  or a ‘civilisation’ are often not present in history books or the news, it is easy to deny or turn a blind eye to  the  gruesome and inhumane treatment of ‘other’ human beings. In turn in the therapeutic space it is equally possible to be dismissive of the racist  treatment your client experiences by you  and “others”,  merely because that is that has predominantly been the norm.

BLM protest
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Denying or not being consciously aware of  a problem does not make it disappear. As  therapists we spend a portion of our time  in  supervision monitoring the way in which  we work, to empower and support our clients by extending our knowledge and competency through constantly working on our capacity to be aware of the clients point of reference and suspending one’s own judgements. You will have to make a concerted effort to do so by contextualising the  clients experience  in relation to  their perceived racial grouping. If it is not within your remit consider attending specialist training and in the immediate sense finding an alternative practioner or other sources of support for your client.

According to Dr Justin Havens “PTSD is the delayed recovery from trauma,” so, by not being ready  or available to  support clients through their trauma you are inadvertently delaying their recovery and thus continuing the cycle of psychological and emotional distress. As the therapist  you  need to be aware of  where  you stand on the “colour spectrum” and do relevant training and processing as illustrated above. It can also be really useful to  discuss  some of your responses with a therapist and or supervisor (with clinical examples if possible) who is experience in this field. This is necessary because the concept of race  is  both subtly and grossly entwined in  every day interactions. We all have inherited parts of the legacy of slavery and the oppressive systems within society. The degree to which, we feel and notice them in part is dependent on how we appear to others and in  turn how  we  are treated  by others institutionally  and on  a person  to person  basis. For more support and guidance on this topic please make use of the sources below. Alternatively, you can get in touch with me on via my website for support and guidance in this area. Be sure to return to Psychotherapy 101 next month, where I will be blogging about my experience of working with clients who are affected by sight loss.

Love & Light,

Sasha McBean.


American Psychological Association: Guideline Development for The Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Adults (2017) Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of PTSD. Last accessed 13th September 2020 at

Dr Joy DeGury (2017) Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Revised Edition: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Joy DeGruy Publications Inc.

Dr Justin Havens (2020) Trauma and PTSD what can therapy help with? Last accessed 10th September 2020 at


Written by Sasha McBean.

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