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Utah researcher who coined ‘racial battle fatigue’ says more work ahead

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Mar 2, 2023

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Professor William A. Smith teaches at the University of Utah and is the chief executive administrator for justice, equity and diversity at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The feeling of racial battle fatigue is not an isolated experience, but rather a build up of people having to deal with racial hate and hostility, whether it is violent or subtle.

“It is a systemic problem that will require the efforts of everyone to break the ties that bind us as a country to allow all people to live healthy and productive lives,” said William A. Smith.

Smith, who is Black, is the chief executive administrator for justice, equity and diversity at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. The HMHI website states he was nationally recognized for his research on racial battle fatigue, a term he coined in 2003. Smith, who holds a Ph.D., is also a professor in the Department of Education, Culture and Society in the College of Education at the University of Utah.

“It is a biopsychosocial explanation of the impact of racism,” he said, regarding racial battle fatigue. “I define it as a systemic racism-related repetitive stress injury.”

Smith said all racially minoritized people are at risk and Utah is no different than any other state when it comes to suffering from the condition. Some examples of potentially triggering behaviors include verbal and nonverbal insults directed at minorities and making them feel like they always have to be on guard or on the defensive.

“We need increased awareness and empathy for those who express conditions and feelings,” Smith said. “We need a better understanding of our history as well as the impact of racism that continues to plague our society.”

Symptoms are numerous and can include headaches, grinding teeth and clenched jaws, chest pain, pounding heart, high blood pressure, muscle aches, indigestion and heart problems. However, those are only the physical symptoms. People also suffer with frustration, defensiveness, apathy, irritability, depression, anxiety, shock, mood change and are quick to anger. They can have an increase or decrease in appetite and spirituality, can suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, and can become impatient.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, about 6 in 10 Americans said race relations in the United States were bad. More than 8 in 10 Black adults said the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in the U.S. today.

The American Medical Association also released a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week stating, “Health inequity is real and can be seen in statistics that show there are more than 74,000 excess deaths among Black people compared with white people each year in the 30 largest American cities.” The study also shows racism, as a system of power and oppression embedded into policies and culture, is at the root of these inequities.

“Too often, we silence the voices of those who are impacted the most,” Smith said. “As a result, too many people suffer in silence, so this becomes an abusive relationship.”

Smith said few medical and mental health providers are being trained on the severity of the condition. However, the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the University of Utah department of psychiatry and the School of Medicine have stepped out as leaders to recognize the condition and offer care to those who are suffering.

“People are realizing that they are not alone and are not the problem. There are well-trained therapists who can address many of their biopsychosocial needs,” Smith said. “There are politicians that are realizing this additional strain on underrepresented groups.”

School administrators and leaders are also trying to ensure their schools are not producing an environment that inadvertently creates suffering for their students, Smith said.

“No one wants another George Floyd situation,” he said. “So we must be intentional in not reproducing a system that crushes the hearts and souls of its people or kills them, at worst.”


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