A novel publication in the Nature journal Neuropsychopharmacology asserts that the stress of racism produces an increased risk for mental health disorders like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in the Black community, especially in the current climate brought on by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, leading to a critical need to utilize science to understand racism’s true biological impact.
Wayne State University School of Medicine Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and the David and Patricia Barron Endowed Chair in PTSD and Trauma Neurobiology Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D., wrote “The critical importance in identifying the biological mechanisms underlying the effects of racism on mental health” with Tracy Bale, Ph.D., a professor of Pharmacology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Jovanovic has studied the impact of trauma on the brain and behavior in primarily African American urban communities for more than 15 years. The focus of her work has been in exposure to neighborhood and domestic violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is now investigating the impact of racial discrimination “above and beyond that of other types of trauma.”
“It is clear that the impact of racism is chronic, pervasive, and for many, unavoidable. Moreover it leaves the brain and body vulnerable to many disorders, including PTSD and many physical diseases,” she said.
Her collaborator is a leading expert in understanding the impact of chronic stress on a molecular level. The duo decided to work together to examine the impact of the chronic stress of racism on biology. For a year, they studied biomarkers of stress that are also linked to immune system function.
“We’ve known for a long time that experiences of racial discrimination have a deep and long-term effect on psychology and mental health, and that there are substantial health disparities in that African American men and women are more likely to suffer from many medical illnesses compared to white individuals,” Jovanovic said. “A large part of this is due to systemic racism in health care, however, we believe racism also leaves an imprint on the body, which has not been well understood.”
Bale works primarily with animal models of chronic stress and focuses on epigenetic and proteomic signatures of stress. Jovanovic focuses on African American women and children with urban trauma exposure who have experienced significant racism.
“In writing this article, I contributed the information from individuals in Detroit reporting experiences of racism, especially in the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement, while Dr. Bale reported on the state-of-the art molecular methods that show the greatest promise as biomarkers of chronic stress and immune function,” Jovanovic said.
She wants the field of stress and trauma research to focus on the impact of racism on the brain and the body. The duo are working on a series of grants and publications that describe these biological mechanisms in African American men and women in Detroit.
“Black communities have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19; the pandemic has uncovered both systemic disparities and health-related vulnerability. It is truly of critical importance that we understand and mitigate the root causes of these vulnerabilities,” she said.