Racism and Mental Health
What is Racism?
This may seem like a ridiculous question, but for a lot of people, the definition of racism differs. For instance, some people believe that anyone and everyone can be racist, as long as they hold stereotypical, ignorant and discriminatory views. However, for others the term ‘Racism’ describes more than the ignorant or prejudice views of an individual. Rather, racism describes a system in which the dominant race benefits from the oppression of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Thus, in this school of thought, whilst anyone can display discriminatory, bigoted, prejudiced and ignorant views about a certain racial group, unless this individual is a member of a dominant race, they cannot be deemed racist. In Sociology racism is described using seven definitions. For the purposes of this article we will adopt this methodology and focus on four types of racism: institutional racism (the use of laws and policies to oppress minority groups), discursive racism (expressed linguistically, e.g. in the use of racial slurs), interactional racism (expressed through interaction, e.g. physical assault due to race) and systemic racism (a society founded/built on racism, and therefore racism is embedded in all social systems).
Early last year Lafiyah Health explored the speculated reasons behind the prevalence of mental health problems in the black community. Building upon this, the current article aims to explore racism and its effects on mental health.
The Negative Effects of Racism on Mental health.
Racism in its various forms, can be not only hurtful, but also traumatizing to experience, particularly, on a daily basis. Thus, it is of no surprise that it can take a toll on one’s mental health (as does anything traumatizing). There are many theories surrounding racism and its effects on health, with racism thought of as a ‘health-defeating stressor and among few that show temporal associations with health’.
Research conducted has only served to support such contentions and has consistently shown racism to have a detrimental effect on not only mental health, but also physical health. For instance, a study conducted in the UK found experiences of racial discrimination at one point in time or more, was significantly associated with poor mental health and negative long-term effects on mental health. These findings are not limited to the UK only. A study conducted in New York, found similar results; residents of black neighborhoods who experienced racism over a long period of time reported poorer mental health compared to those with little reported experiences of racism. Specifically speaking, the experience of racism has been linked to anxiety, depression and even psychosis.
Although studies have differed in their conceptualization of ‘racism’, whether defining racism in terms of institutional racism, interactional racism or systemic racism, all findings are the same: racism negatively effects mental health.
Why does Racism Effect Mental Health?
Although there are no set answers to this question, many have attempted to explain just how the nuances of racism interact to cause a deterioration in mental health. One of the reasons postulated for this deterioration is self-esteem. It is believed that the exercise of power relationships and the infliction of insulting or derogatory acts (either through discursive or interaction racism), may serve to devalue and diminish one’s self-worth. These experiences often provoke feelings of sadness, anger, low-self-esteem and worthlessness. These feelings interact and can lead to a poor self-image, which in turn negatively effects one’s mental health.
Others have sought to answer this question using neuroscience, for example exploring the impact of racial discrimination on stress neurobiology. Although this explanation is rather complex, essentially research has explored the relationship between the experience of racism and elevated stress levels in the brain. It has been clearly established within psychological literature that elevated levels of ‘stress chemicals’ in the brain negatively impact mental health and can make one more susceptible to mental illness. Thus, could potentially explain the negative effects of racism on mental health.
Although we cannot be sure of how the mechanisms underlying mental health interact with racism to cause a deterioration in mental health, is there something we can do to mitigate the effects of racism?
How Can We Protect our Mental Health from Racism?
Just like everything discussed in this article, nothing is set in stone. Racism is not something that be controlled by any one individual, and therefore the only choice one has is to protect themselves as much as possible from its effects. One such way to do this is through self-awareness and reflection. In as much as experiencing racial discrimination is painful, we can often mitigate its effects by examining ourselves, and having an awareness of our thoughts and feelings regarding any incident of racism. Describing and expressing these feelings in a healthy way (e.g. keeping a diary or prayer).
Self-awareness is also important, in terms of acknowledging the possibility of one experiencing racism (in any form) due to their race, and coming to terms with this. Research has shown those who denied thinking about their race altogether, reported poorer mental health compared to those who thought about and acknowledged race.
As you can see, racism is a very complex issue, and more than a set of thoughts feelings and attitudes towards a particular group. Its effects are deep and have a lasting impact on the physical and mental health of its victims. To some extent self-awareness can mitigate these effects, but this does not minimize its negative potency.
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Written by: Christiana Ilesanmi of Chrissyspeaks.com.