Coping with Racial Trauma & Oppression

School girl victim of violence

The spring and summer of 2020 have heightened the mental health awareness for those who identify as part of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

Mental health of BIPOC people include racial trauma, oppression and the intersectionality with other affected groups such as LGBTQ+. This page’s purpose is to lay out what racial trauma and oppression look like, how it may affect yourself or those around you and ways to combat the associated mental strains.


Trauma is typically considered to be an experience or event of actual or threatened danger to an individual. Some events that commonly lead to trauma include but are not limited to being in danger due to a natural disaster, seeing someone killed or badly injured, or being a survivor of sexual assault.

Immediately after a trauma is experienced, feelings of shock and denial are common. Longer-term reactions can include re-experiencing the traumatic event, feeling emotional numbness, as well as physical reactions such as headaches or nausea.

These feelings are normal, unless they last for more than a month and begin to impact your ability to live your daily life. In these cases, a traumatic experience (or experiences) can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Additionally, people can carry the impact of trauma throughout their life and even throughout generations, known as intergenerational trauma.

Often, this type of trauma is due to historical and cultural violence and oppression. Trauma can impact one’s daily life, even if it is not always obvious.

Those who identify as BIPOC – especially queer and trans folks – can often identify actions, words, and events that have made deep impacts on their lives.

In order to best understand trauma’s impact on mental health, an intersectional lens is necessary to help us look beyond solely the individual experience and see how historical factors and systems play a role.


Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma. As we know, trauma impacts mental health – both in the short and long-term for some. Racial trauma, or race-based traumatic stress (RBTS), can be physical or verbal attacks that threaten one’s emotional and psychological well-being; these can be interpersonal or systemic, intentional or not, and include microaggressions and vicarious experiences.

The psychological impacts of RBTS can be similar to that of PTSD, and can include anger, difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, and more. In the mental health field, RBTS is not currently considered a mental health disorder, rather it is considered a mental injury due to living within a racist system.

Racial trauma can be experienced on three levels:

  • interpersonal level where there is person to person discrimination,
  • cultural level where there is a devaluing of a racial group, and
  • institutional level where there are discriminatory laws and social policies.

Ultimately, BIPOC folks in the U.S. are more vulnerable to racial trauma due to living under a system of white supremacy. As a society, we can do better. Below you will find further learning opportunities focused on anti-racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and LGBTQ+ identity.

For treatment and support options, see our find treatment services section or our support resources section. Find organizations and resources on the University of Michigan’s campus specifically for BIPOC folks.




Get Help Now - Crisis Text Line 741-741 // Call U-M Crisis Phone Line: (734) 936-5900 or (734) 996-4747