Racism is prejudice or discrimination directed toward someone or a group of people based on beliefs that all members of that specific race possess the same quality or characteristic. Racism can impact many aspects of life -- financial well being, career success, personal relationships, and more. One aspect of racism that is not often addressed is its effect on mental health. The stress and trauma of living with racism can contribute to many mental health conditions. Research has also shown that race can impact the quality of health care you receive.
Racism can create a lot of obstacles in life, from job or housing discrimination to the more subtle racism of low expectations. Being on the receiving end of racism can cause moments of intense stress (like getting turned down for a job you really want and need) as well as chronic low-grade stress (like being aware that store clerks are watching you every time you go shopping). Living with stress has well-documented effects on physical and mental health, and can contribute to heart conditions, ulcers or other digestive problems, anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse and disordered eating. According to the federal Office of Minority Health, African Americans are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites, and are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites.
Psychologists and researchers who study racism and mental health have noticed patterns of symptoms in people of color reacting to current and historical oppression. These patterns are currently not official mental health diagnoses in the DSM-V (the official book of mental health conditions, including depressive disorders and post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD).
- Race-based traumatic stress injury. Similar to PTSD, the symptoms of race-based traumatic stress injury include depression, intrusive thoughts or memories, feeling “on alert” for danger, anger, shame, numbing, and others. A person can have this reaction to a singular traumatic event or (more likely) a lifetime of smaller instances of racism or microaggressions.
- Intergenerational trauma. When someone is impacted by racism, the anxiety, trauma, stress, depression, or other mental health symptoms can affect their children too. Children pick up on emotions (like anger or fear) as well as behaviors (avoidance of certain people or situations) exhibited by their traumatized parents. Many researchers have documented the ways trauma has been transmitted from one generation to the next. Children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors are more likely to exhibit anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions than other children. Children born to mothers who witnessed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks show symptoms of PTSD despite not experiencing the trauma firsthand themselves. Similarly, racism experienced by parents or grandparents can impact young people -- in addition to any present-day discrimination they face.
There have been numerous studies that show people of color tend to receive lower-quality health care than whites -- even when they have the same insurance, income, age, and severity of conditions. According to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and African American people are less likely to have access to mental health services and more likely to recieve lower quality care when they do get treatment.
People of color suffer the most in a racist society, but a racist system can also impact the mental health of people in the majority group. It is can be stressful and painful to acknowledge the privilege and benefits that come with whiteness. Many white people experience feelings of shame, anger, sadness, guilt, regret, or other difficult emotions when they realize the ways they have been -- wittingly or unwittingly -- participating in a system that causes harm to others or goes against deeply held values of fairness and compassion.
What can I do?
If you are struggling with mental health concerns as a result of racism, here are some ways you can get help:
- Therapy with a culturally competent counselor. When you meet with a new therapist, ask about their knowledge of racism and oppression.
- Talk to friends or family going through similar struggles. Support from other people of color or members of an oppressed minority can help you feel less alone.
- Speak up. If you experience or witness racist comments or actions, you may choose to make your voice heard. Let the person know they have said something that you experienced as discriminatory or offensive. Always attend to your safety first, don’t challenge or confront someone if your gut is telling you it’s not safe!
- Take action. Join a national or local organization that is working to fight racism.
- Take care of yourself. It is not your job to address every act of racism you encounter in the world. It is not your responsibility to educate every person who says something offensive or racist. You can choose to not engage, walk away, or disconnect from social media if you need to.
- If you are a member of the majority group struggling to come to terms with majority privilege, it’s ok to have your feelings and talk it through with a trusted friend or a counselor. If you want to talk with a friend or family member who is a person of color, it’s important to check in with them to see if they are open to the conversation.
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