Racial trauma and the negative impact on health of persons of color

Steven Kniffley Jr., PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who leads Spalding University’s Collective Care Center – one of the nation’s only behavioral health clinics to specialize in treating race-based trauma and stress.

Since 2018, he has served as associate director of Spalding’s Center for Behavioral Health training clinic, of which the Collective Care Center is a specialty division.

Kniffley’s area of expertise is research and clinical work with Black males. Specifically, his work focuses on understanding and developing culturally appropriate interventions for Black male psychopathology as well as barriers to academic success for this population.

We talked to Kniffley recently about his work at the Collective Care Center, the treatment protocol for the experience of racial trauma and his goals in his new position of Chief Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Highlights are below.

Medical News: What are your goals for your first year as Chief Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer?


Steven Kniffley: My goals for the first year include coordinating and implementing a university-wide cultural climate assessment as well as developing a diversity, equity, justice, and inclusion strategic plan.  

MN: What is racial trauma?

SK: Trauma that stems from the result of chronic experiences racism and discrimination and contributes to a constant state of hypervigilance for racially based slights and micro-assaults at the individual, institutional and cultural levels.

MN: What are the challenges related to the experience of racial trauma found during your research and clinical experience?

SK: Racial trauma can have a negative impact on the physical and psychological health of persons of color. Specifically, racial trauma can contribute to mental health difficulties related to poor concentration, flashbacks and nightmares, intrusive thoughts, restrict emotional expression, depression and anxiety.

Racial trauma can also contribute to physical health difficulties such as hypertension, decreased immune system, chronic fatigue, insomnia and migraines. Lastly, the experience of racial trauma can contribute to difficulties in relationships due to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and frustration that contribute to isolation.

MN: Tell me about the racial trauma training recently conducted at Seven Counties Services.

SK: I had the honor of supporting 130 Seven Counties Services clinicians learning and growing in racial trauma therapy. Over eight weeks, the clinicians completed a virtual self-paced training on Racial Trauma Assessment and Therapy.

This training included didactic lectures, readings on Black psychology, Liberation psychology and the assessment and treatment of racial trauma in various racial and ethnic groups, and viewing videos demonstrating racial trauma assessment and therapy techniques.

Currently, Seven Counties Services clinicians are being engaged in a year-long once a month consultation process to support them in the implementation of the racial trauma therapy model.  

MN: What is the treatment protocol for the experience of racial trauma?

SK: The Kniffley Racial Trauma Therapy model is grounded in Afrocentric and liberation psychology principles, and incorporates an experiential, process oriented, and skill building interventions. Specifically, the model focuses on racial identity affirmation, providing space to process racial trauma and developing adaptive coping skills for the experience of racist events.

There are 12 sessions in the Kniffley Racial Trauma Therapy divide into three four session modules for Racial Identity Development (sessions 1-4), Racial Trauma Processing (sessions 5-8) and Skill Development (session 9-12).

MN: How do you train clinicians in the implementation of the protocol?

SK: Clinicians participate in a certification process that includes the successful completion of three modules on racial trauma, racial trauma assessment and racial trauma therapy. At the end of each module, clinicians must past a post-test with a score of 80 percent to move onto the next module in the sequence.