In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. passionately addressed inequality in civil rights in the US for those citizens who suffered discrimination within their communities. His quote (above) remains relevant in today's polarizing political atmosphere.
The silence he speaks of has a deep impact for those who still suffer from prejudice. In fact, one of the worst things that systemic discrimination can do is negatively impact your health.
Last week, Psychology Today published an article addressing the ways in which racial prejudice can internally impact the health of African Americans. "Nightmares in African Americans" makes it plain that this population still lives with the anxieties and stress that Dr. King rallied against 50 years ago. These anxieties and stresses eventually lead to depression, poor sleep, PTSD, and a wide range of physical health concerns, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
When one is the subject of ongoing prejudice in their community, the body absorbs the negative effects in myriad ways. One of the chief ways investigated in the article is something known as Nightmare Disorder.
Nightmare Disorder isn't just the experience of having a nightmare every once in a while. Nightmare Disorder is a sleep disorder in which frequent nightmares occur, leaving one so distressed and with such disrupted sleep that daytime functions become limited. The fear of going to sleep because of the fear of these recurring nightmares compounds the problem.
While anyone can experience Nightmare Disorder, it comes as no surprise that people who are frequently targeted for their race in negative ways develop problems with anxiety that lead to nightmares.
According to the article's author, neurology professor and dream specialist Patrick McNamara PhD, the nightmares themselves are just the tip of the iceberg:
"The risk factors for Nightmare Disorder include higher rates of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), high childhood adversity, significant history of physical trauma, existence of chronic emotional stressors and anxiety, and chronic sleep dysfunction (such as sleep apnea). In addition, recurrent disturbed dreaming/nightmares significantly increase risk, in turn, for insomnia (sleep avoidance), poor sleep quality (non-restorative sleep) and other neuropsychiatric problems such as suicidal ideation and psychosis."
McNamara also reveals this racial reality in medical research:
"Despite these dozens of studies of sleep disparities among African Americans, there has to my knowledge, never been a study of nightmare disorder or recurrent nightmares/disturbed dreaming among this group. I suspect that Nightmare Disorder/disturbed dreaming is prevalent among African Americans and is in fact an underdiagnosed sleep problem. I am not sure why nightmares are not studied among African Americans. It is easy enough to ask patients in a clinic or respondents in epidemiologic surveys whether or not they have experienced nightmares that disturb daytime functioning. Yet that simple question has not been posed consistently."
Dr. King may have said that "there is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution" in his commencement address in 1965 at Oberlin College. But if Dr. King were alive today, he would support services that helped to confront, diagnose, and treat sleep (and other medical) disorders that are the direct effect of the racial inequalities still apparent in the American landscape.
But staying silent on the experience of racial prejudice and the way it spills over into our health and well being is only part of the problem.
People of color are far more likely to speak out in 2017 than they were half a century ago. But who is listening? If these stories are not heard, how can anyone help them?
Helping all people feel safe, welcome and accepted in their communities requires a commitment among all neighbors to listen.
That includes our community leaders, who should act to ensure discrimination is put to an end.
It also means healthcare professionals, public safety administrators, teachers, scientific researchers, employers, and civil servants need to step up and do their part to listen and help those who are disenfranchised.
Ultimately, if people feel supported in their communities, they experience less stress and anxiety, sleep better, and remain healthy, productive individuals, no matter what race.