How Racism Impacts Mental Health - Public Goods Blog

How Racism Impacts Mental Health

Mental health is about wellness, but for people subject to racial discrimination, it is far more than that.

black male in a mask and black hat at a protest

Racism has been globally condemned on every relevant occasion, but it is still alive and well. This societal ill involves the use of discriminatory words, behaviors, stereotypes, policies and racial slurs, to name a few, specifically targeted at a particular race based on the color of their skin or background.

Mental health conditions do not target any race in particular, yet the minority races and ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from them. Apart from the physical effect discrimination has on the targeted group, which could sometimes involve violence, it carries huge mental health risks.

Various research continues to show that, for racial and ethnic minorities, the negative impact of racial discrimination is outrageous. From suicidal thoughts, suicide, depression, emotional trauma and sometimes substance use, the list goes on.

While addressing the issue of mental health and racism, Sandra Shullman, the President of the American Psychological Association (APA), stated that racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and other physical diseases.

There are a number of ways that racial discrimination has impacted mental health. The first of them can be seen in the statistics behind suicide thoughts and attempts.

It is believed that there is a high risk of suicidal thoughts, attempts and eventually suicide among teens who have been faced with racial discrimination or bullying based on the color of their skin. This correlation is adequately backed by comprehensive research. In 2019 a study carried out by a team of psychologists and published on Pediatrics Journal revealed that black youth, compared to their counterparts in other racial and ethnic groups, have experienced an increase in suicide attempts, which is the most prominent risk factor associated with suicide deaths.

Similar research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health suggested that the number of the suicide rate for black children between five to 12 is two times compared to their white counterpart of the same age group. For people who are racially discriminated against and don’t have suicidal thoughts, psychologists believe they could be faced with other concerns like depression, anxiousness and trauma.

Racial discrimination has been linked as one of the causes of depression. In fact, research suggests that perceived discrimination, a psychological stressor, is a significant risk factor for the onset of depression among Black people and other minorities.

Depression caused by racial discrimination is not limited to those who are subject to the racial attack. People who are not directly affected could also suffer from it. Kevin Nadal, a psychologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who researched the mental health effect of microaggressions, believes that even if people aren’t experiencing direct incidents, just the knowledge of it can cause them to feel anxious, depressed or hypervigilant, which can lead to other mental health issues.

Also, discrimination is a source of trauma that some people in minority racial groups go through. Experiencing racist events in any form could lead to either emotional, physical or psychological trauma. According to Carter, who considered the psychological and emotional effects of racism on people of color, racist events may result in emotional and psychological injury that negatively impact mental health by eliciting traumatic stress, as they are often perceived as negative, unexpected, ambiguous, repeated and out of the individual’s control.

Other known effects of racial discrimination are willingness to abuse substance and the actual substance use, low self-esteem and, for teenagers especially, lack of confidence.

As James Carter rightly puts it, mental well-being and physical health are intertwined. Racial discrimination affects our entire health care system. By doing our part to prevent racism, we are lifting a burden on marginalized communities and our entire economy.

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