Racism and mental health are closely linked. Discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity can cause or worsen mental health conditions. It can also make accessing effective treatment more difficult.
Racism refers to the systemic oppression of certain racial groups. This can manifest in several ways.
Stereotyping, hate crimes, and economic inequality are just a few examples of the impact that racism has, all of which can have a detrimental effect on mental health.
This article will look at the link between racism and mental health, the short- and long-term impacts, and how it affects young people, men, and women. It will also look at some coping techniques.
Racism can cause or worsen some mental health conditions. These include:
This can occur in a number of ways. For example, distressing symptoms can arise as a direct result of racist incidents such as hate speech. They can also occur as an indirect result of broader inequality, which racism perpetuates.
Although racism also affects physical health, one 2015 systematic review suggests that racism is twice as likely to affect a person’s mental health than their physical health.
Here are some of the ways in which racism impacts mental health and the treatment of mental health conditions.
Prejudice refers to the generalized beliefs that people apply to certain groups, including races and ethnicities. These generalizations can be positive or negative, but either way, they have the potential to do harm.
For example, the “model minority” stereotype frames Asian American people as self-reliant, polite, and successful. However, one 2018 study suggests that this stereotype may prevent doctors from noticing symptoms of alcohol addiction in Asian people, as this does not match their expectations for this group.
This could make it more difficult for Asian American people to access treatment for substance abuse disorders.
Prejudice can also affect how healthcare professionals approach treating certain conditions in people of color.
For example, one 2014 report from the United Kingdom found that Black people are more likely to experience harsh or coercive mental health treatment than white people. Respondents in the study suggest that this could be due to the perception that Black people are “dangerous,” leading to treatment that resembles “punishment instead of therapy.”
Oppression involves a group of people suppressing another group for their own gain. This can be intentional or occur systemically due to policies that favor the majority. The most overt forms of oppression include persecution, enslavement, and violence that targets people of color.
However, there are more subtle and pervasive forms of oppression that affect people’s daily lives.
For example, racist jokes or slights can make people of color feel uncomfortable, anxious, or unsafe. Over time, this can be so pervasive that it also reinforces negative beliefs that people of color may have internalized about themselves. This is known as internalized oppression.
When these less blatant events, or microaggressions, occur frequently, they can have a profound negative impact on well-being.
A 2016 study from the U.K. suggests that the fear of racial discrimination has a cumulative effect on people of color. The more often participants felt unsafe during the study, the more likely they were to experience mental health difficulties.
This was true even if the participants did not experience overt discrimination over the course of the study, which suggests that the pervasive threat of racism causes ongoing stress.
Access to resources
Racism also affects a person’s or group’s ability to access resources, including mental health treatment. This occurs for many reasons, but in the United States, economic disparity and health insurance are significant factors.
Although rates of mental health conditions are similar across white, Black, and Latinx adults in the U.S., rates of mental health treatment are not.
The following table contains data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It shows how many U.S. adults with mental health conditions accessed treatment in 2017:
|Race||Percentage of adults with a mental health condition who received treatment|
The amount of Black and Latinx people with a mental health condition who received treatment was significantly lower than that of white people. The NIMH did not investigate why this was the case, but it is likely that there are multiple obstacles preventing people from accessing support.
Health insurance can be one such obstacle. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012–2014, 38.8% of Latinx people, 33.2% of Native American or Alaskan people, and 22% of Black people aged 18–64 had no health insurance coverage.
The figure for white people was 13.7%.
The effects of racism on an individual’s mental health occur as a result of stress. The stress response, or the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, is how the body prepares to escape from danger.
The symptoms of stress include:
- fast or shallow breathing
- a fast heartbeat
- muscle tension
In the short-term, stress can be helpful for survival. However, prolonged exposure to stress can contribute to mental and physical health conditions.
Because racism is an ongoing source of stress, it impacts people of color throughout their lives.
Chronic race-related stress can definitely meet the criteria for trauma. Our minds and bodies have various ways of coping with trauma.
During or immediately after a traumatic experience, a person may feel:
- disconnected from their thoughts and feelings
Some people who experience racial trauma may even develop symptoms that resemble those of PTSD, such as:
- heart palpitations
- avoidance of activities that might remind the person of the trauma
- a constant feeling of alertness, or hyperarousal
This impacts a person’s quality of life and can lead to additional stress if they find it difficult to work, lose income, or can no longer attend school.
There is also evidence to suggest that trauma can pass from parents to their children on a genetic level, suggesting that the historical trauma of racist institutions such as slavery and colonialism can impact future generations.
Gender can also influence how people of color experience racism.
For example, one small 2014 study suggests that some Black women identify with the “strong Black woman” stereotype, which includes characteristics such as resilience, self-sacrifice, and self-reliance.
Although these can be positive traits, the researchers say that moderate or high identification with this stereotype correlated with increased levels of stress and depressive symptoms. This may be due to the pressure that this stereotype places on Black women to be strong at all times.
Additionally, Black women can face discrimination on the basis of their gender and their race simultaneously. In 2017, 3.7% of Black women experienced severe psychological distress, compared with 2.6% of Black men.
However, although the rates of distress were higher among women, men were nearly four times more likely to die by suicide.
Although the reasons for higher rates of male suicide are complex, one 2011 paper suggests that males may be less likely to seek professional help than females and more likely to use more lethal methods.
Racism also intersects with prejudice toward people from LGBTQIA+ communities, including those who are nonbinary or transgender.
Although racism’s impact on mental health can be significant, building some coping skills can provide a source of resilience.
The sections below will look at some coping skills to try in more detail.
Stress relief techniques may reduce the immediate impact of racism on a person’s stress and anxiety levels. Ideas for this include:
- breathing exercises, which can help with anxiety or panic attacks
- mindfulness or meditation
- physical exercise
- hobbies or creative activities
Finding support from friends, family, or community
Some evidence suggests that having a strong support network can help people cope with racism’s impact on mental health.
Talking openly about racism and racist experiences with those of a shared identity can help people work through feelings of stress, frustration, and anger.
Additionally, having a support network can help people manage mental health conditions such as depression by reducing isolation and encouraging hope.
Leaning into cultural identity
One 2003 study suggests that having a strong sense of racial identity can be protective against psychological distress due to discrimination.
How a person explores their racial identity is unique to them, but learning the history of one’s family or community, taking part in cultural activities or traditions, and finding positive role models can all play a part.
It may also help some people to engage in activism.
Seeking trauma therapy
Beyond learning how to cope with the impact of racism, people can also move toward healing from it.
Therapy can help people manage the impact of racism on their mental health. However, for this to be effective, therapists need to understand how oppressive systems contribute to mental health conditions.
People of color with anxiety, depression, or PTSD may find it beneficial to speak to a therapist who understands racism and racial trauma.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that children and adolescents who experience racism should undergo frequent assessment for mental health conditions.
Everyone has a responsibility to dismantle racism. Allies are people who are not subject to racism but who actively try to stop it in solidarity with people of color.
The following are some things that allies can do.
Learn about racism
Allies need to educate themselves about racism so that they are in a better position to challenge it. This involves:
- listening to the experiences of people of color
- learning about the history of racism in their country
- learning how current behaviors, practices, laws, and institutions impact people of color
It is also important not to ask people of color to be the sole providers of this information, as this places additional responsibility on them.
Although allies often do not experience racism themselves, they can contribute to creating safe spaces for people to talk about racism without judging, questioning, or trying to fix anything.
This can allow people of color to express how they feel and ask for what they need, which can be particularly useful in environments or situations that white people typically dominate.
Protect people’s safety
Use trigger warnings and think twice about resharing videos of violence against people of color.
Although sharing images or videos that highlight racism can seem useful for raising awareness, images of violence or hatred toward people of color can also be harmful. These images can retraumatize people, and in some cases, they may also put people in danger.
Identifying discrimination, prejudice, and other forms of oppression while it is happening and confronting the perpetrator is another way that allies can reduce the impact of racism on individuals.
One article suggests that people can do this by:
- making the invisible visible, such as by pointing out the false assumptions in someone’s statements
- disarming the microaggression, such as by asking that person to speak to them privately
- educating the person on why their words or actions are harmful
Anyone experiencing persistent emotional distress can benefit from seeking support. A person who has experienced racism may wish to seek a therapist who understands the impact that this can have.
People can look for inclusive mental health services using the following resources:
- Inclusive Therapists
- Therapy for Black Girls
- Therapy for Black Men
- Therapy for Latinx
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Racism impacts mental health in a variety of ways, and it may cause or worsen a number of mental health conditions. It can also cause racial trauma, which affects both individuals and communities.
Seeking support from people who understand what it is like to experience racism may help reduce the negative impact of racism on mental health.
Allies can use their influence to provide support and educate others.