Cultural Trauma & the Role of Therapists

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José R. Rosario

Section Editor:

Antonella Bariani

Peer Reviewers:

Linda Zheng & Molly Becker

THE HOLOCAUST, THE PULSE NIGHTCLUB SHOOTING, AND THE MURDERS OF George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Matthew Shepard are just some examples of horrendous acts of violence towards members of minoritized communities. These atrocities, fueled by hate and systemic oppression, shape the ways in which affected communities navigate the current sociocultural context. In the aftermath of these acts of violence, physical and virtual communities navigate anger and fear (Jackson, 2017; Weine et al., 2020). Alexander et al. (2004) proposed a sociological theory of cultural trauma that explains these experiences of distress, noting that a cultural trauma is one wherein “members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (p. 1). To fit the definition of a cultural trauma, these events must fit several additional criteria. They must be remembered, be associated with negative affective states, and maintain cultural relevance within the affected community.

It is striking, then, that current conceptualizations of trauma disorders do not encapsulate the complexity of cultural trauma for minoritized communities. The narrowing Criterion A for PTSD within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – Fifth Edition (DSM-5), ensured that clients only meet diagnostic criteria if they directly experience the traumatic event, witness the event in real-time, learned that this occurred to a close loved one, or are chronically exposed to details of these traumatic events in their work (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). However, the definition explicitly notes that indirect exposure through electronic media, photos, and film do not meet the criteria of a trauma, which means that many of these cultural traumas would not fit Criterion A. While recent revisions to the DSM-5 (DSM-5-TR) have begun to explore cultural considerations related to diagnosis, the PTSD criteria remains narrow and fails to address the community-level distress after acts of violence. These acts of violence compound chronic individual experiences of hate-based violence and must be considered in interventions for trauma (Ghafoori et al., 2019). To continue reading click here.