Trauma Psychology News

Exploring the Wellness of Black Women Who Describe a Criterion A Trauma in their Life Story

Exploring the Wellness of Black Women who Describe a Criterion A Trauma in their Life Story

Jessica Krukowski, Ed St. Aubin, & Karen Robinson
Section Editor: Sydney Timmer-Murillo

Black women live in an intersection between two marginalized identities: their Blackness and their womanhood (King, 2019). Oftentimes the challenges Black men and boys face become synonymous with the entire Black experience (Patton et al., 2016). As a result, solidarity becomes asymmetrical, and the lived experiences of Black women and girls become marginalized (Johnson, 2013). Black women encounter a similar asymmetry with sexism. Sexism as experienced by White women and by Black women is not equivalent. Because the Black woman’s particular experience is not recognized, that experience of sexism is dismissed (Sesko & Biernat, 2010). Because the impact of racism and sexism have been historically explored separately, the unique intersectional forms of racist and sexist oppression Black women face are less understood and have remained invisible to larger social justice movements (e.g., civil rights, Black power, feminism/women’s liberation, workers’ rights, Me Too, Black Lives Matter; Coles & Pasek, 2020). This imposed invisibility has perpetuated the systematic silencing of Black female voices (Kota, 2020). As a result, Black women have been consistently underrepresented and historically overlooked in research, leaving a gaping hole in the scientific literature (Allen, 2018). Methodologies exploring stress and trauma in Black women are no exception. Presently, the body of stress and trauma literature has found pervasive effects on the mental health (Turner & Turner, 2021) and well-being (Harrell, 2000) of Black people, but the methods employed have not been conducive to understanding the lived experience of Black women in particular. Thus, it is imperative for researchers to provide the space for Black women to use their voices to guide future scholarship. Raising the voices of Black women will help to close this gap, adding a strength-based and intersectional lens.


The sample consisted of Black women varying in age, income, and sexual orientation living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; see Krukowski et al. (2022) for additional study methodology. The purpose of this mixed-methods study was to explore how the low-point narratives from Black women relate to quantitative measures of mental health and well-being. Written informed consent was obtained before completing a 90-minute, semi-structured, one-on-one life-story narrative interview (McAdams, 2015) which was audio recorded in real-time with a Black/African American female researcher trained in the interview protocol. The low point prompt requests that the participant describes in as much detail as possible the lowest point in her life. These women were asked what happened, when and where it occurred, who was involved, and what they were thinking and feeling. Participants were asked to recount why this particular moment was so difficult and what the scene may say about them or their life (McAdams, 2015). This prompt qualitatively elucidates experiences of stress and trauma without explicitly asking to recount a specific traumatic event.

Following the interview, participants completed an online survey battery including the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a 10-item stress assessment instrument to help researchers understand how various situations affect a participant’s feelings and perceived stress over the last month (Cohen et al., 1983); the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS), a 21-item scale with three sub-scales designed to measure the emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress (Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995); the Psychological Well-Being scale (PWB), an 18-item instrument based on the participant’s attitudes about themselves and others which investigates quality of life as it relates to benefits gained through overall psychological health and stable self-concept (Ryff, 1989); and the Social Well-Being scale (SWB), a 15-item instrument that explores quality of life as it relates to benefits gained through understanding of self as a social being and maintenance of stable social relationships (Keyes, 1998). Each participant was compensated for their time. After data collection, all interviews were deidentified and transcribed verbatim. The low-point portion from each Life Story Interview was compiled. Other facets of the Life Story Interview were not considered for this project.

To ensure cultural responsiveness, there was a council of five Black female community leaders and academics who consulted the team at every step of the project’s design including identification of all measures used and the implementation of the study. Further, each of the interviews were conducted by Black women members of the research team and Black women were part of interpreting the narrative material participants told.


There were 62 participants with both interview and survey data. A thematic scoring system was created to determine which women described an event that would meet Criterion A of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Criterion A events are defined as ones in which a person is exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence either directly, as a witness, from a loved one’s experience, or from repeated or extreme exposure to adverse (disturbing) details of a traumatic event; Criterion A does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures unless this exposure is work related (APA, 2013). Of the 62 responses, 38 women (61.3%) described an event that would qualify as Criterion A. Using independent samples t-tests, we tested whether there was a mean difference between women who described a Criterion A trauma and those who did not on six measures of wellness. There were no significant differences. What we get from these data is a constellation of how this group of women’s voices relate to mental health and well-being.


This demonstrates that more than 6 out of 10 Black women from Milwaukee tell stories of the low point in one’s life narrative that meet the criteria for an event to be considered potentially traumatizing. Yet, when compared to those in this study whose low point did not meet Criterion A for trauma, there are no group differences on several indices of wellness.

While clinicians may work under the assumption that clients whose life experiences meet Criterion A are categorically different than those who do not with regards to psychosocial functioning, this study suggests a more nuanced reality. Practicing clinicians working with Black women from Milwaukee, and perhaps in other contexts, need to be mindful that there may not be an increase in their client’s mental health symptoms, or a decrease in their well-being when talking about life threatening or serious injuries that have happened to themselves or to people close to them.

We must remember that the methods and findings of this study are not the same as diagnostic work using Criterion A and that the description of the lowest point does not explicitly ask about trauma. It did, however, elicit responses that clinicians could consider traumatizing at incredibly high rates. These results can be used by mental health professionals to help guide appropriate treatment and intervention for the Black women they work with. This work underscores that if we want to understand individuals as a whole, we need to ask them about their lives. Lives are not checklists.

Jessica Krukowski
Jessica Krukowski

JESSICA KRUKOWSKI is a fifth-year clinical psychology doctoral student at Marquette University. Her clinical and research interests are rooted in exploring well-being using strength-based and translational methodologies. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue a community engaged clinical and research career aimed toward evidence-based social justice and policy reform.

Ed De St. Aubin
Ed De St. Aubin

ED DE ST. AUBIN is a Psychology Professor at Marquette University. His current research projects integrate qualitative and quantitative techniques, with an emphasis on empowering participants by prioritizing their self-defining life stories. Our work is community-engaged and based on a deep understanding of the impact that culture and structural power dynamics have on individual lives. Core concepts we explore include psychosocial wellness, meaning-making, identity, microaggressions, intersectionality, trauma, and generativity.

Karen Robinson
Karen Robinson

KAREN ROBINSON is the Interim Assistant Dean Graduate Programs and Associate Professor in the College of Nursing at Marquette University. Dr. Robinson’s program of research focuses on racial disparities in maternal-child health. She has centered her research around breastfeeding disparities by examining breastfeeding barriers for African American mothers. Specifically, Dr. Robinson is investigating how racism, implicit bias, and discriminatory behaviors towards African American mothers negatively impact breastfeeding outcomes within this population. She has also studied the positive effects of breastfeeding peer counselors and group prenatal care on breastfeeding outcomes. [See Dr. Robinson’s online profile.]

Citation: Krukowski, J., De St. Aubin, E., & Robinson, K. (2023). Exploring the wellness of black women who describe a criterion A trauma in their life story. Trauma Psychology News, 18(2), 22-25.

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