Impact of racism on mental health and how to cope with it

Updated on Jun 29, 2021 04:32 PM IST  |  189.5K
Impact of racism on mental health

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Race categories have no scientific basis as a source of differential performance or achievement, intellectually or physically. The importance of race is that it is a social marker of identity, allowing the identification of ‘the other’, and as a way of seeing people as part of collective identity groups.

Racism is an unpleasant reality. However, it exists in many forms and acts not only through interpersonal assaults but also through societal structures. There is a large amount of evidence demonstrating that racism leads to mental illnesses, especially depression and prolonged periods of adjustment, like prolonged grief or difficulty coping with and adapting to severe events. These mental illness experiences are often co-existent. There is evidence that racism also has an effect on physical health, for example, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and more.

The impact of interpersonal racism

Adverse experience such as prejudicial statements that are hurtful or attacking; aggression, violence, bullying or harassment need not be extreme, they might operate on the basis of almost casual slights, so-called micro-aggressions that consist of chronic daily hassles, avoidance of people, places and contexts and thwarted aspirations. Indeed, they need not be directly experienced to have pernicious effects on the individual.

Evidence shows that racism is a form of stressor,  where even if there is no major incident but an awareness of being treated and responded to in a less than fairway on the basis of race; perhaps even being feared, avoided or especially disadvantaged.

These subtle influences can result in pessimism, and difficulties adjusting and recovering from trauma, and there is a growing and convincing body of evidence that psychosis and depression, substance misuse and anger are more likely in those exposed to racism.

More explicit verbally hurtful comments about appearance or physical attacks, due to hostility towards a specific race, also cause emotional distress, and lead to mental illnesses - in part because of the direct threat to identity and status, but also because physical and verbal violence lead to injury and post-traumatic stress. The fear of being victim to assault and racism among ethnic minority people is itself harmful and undermines resilience, hope and motivation.

Structural disadvantage and mental illness

Structural racism is the way society and organisations are structured, through policies and practices that are accepted as standard and reasonable, but nonetheless result in discriminatory practices and disadvantage some racial or ethnic groups. The main sources of structural disadvantage include poverty, unemployment, housing, poor neighbourhoods and schooling opportunities. These experiences impact mental health and the effects accumulate over the life course and are transmitted across generations. The power relationships within organisations, lack of alternative perspectives and the prioritisation of race-blind business efficiency compound the hurts already experienced, and add to the health burdens of individuals, communities and society

However, even where educational success has occurred, research shows that ethnic minority people have poorer outcomes. For example, those with degrees are less likely to secure employment, and their lifetime earnings are less than others.

Racism affects mental health by creating an impact on our overall health and wellbeing

When someone encounters stress, they undergo physical reactions such as heart rate increases, blood pressure increases and stress hormone is released. When someone faces racism often, they stay in this heightened state. Someone who has undergone trauma due to racism will constantly think or re-experience the trauma, have anxiety and hypervigilance. 

Be under constant stress.

Have memory disturbance.

Have insomnia and sleep disturbances.

Avoid people and be less social.

Feel, sad, depressed, suicidal.

Internalize racism and will have low self-worth.

Be pessimistic and hopeless about the possibility of change.

Develop anger issues.

Have higher chances of substance use disorder.

Over time, they can have chronic illnesses like hypertension, high cholesterol, low immunity.

Pathways to mental healthcare

It has been suggested that the nature of the illness among ethnic minority people is more severe, including more violence, co-existing substance misuse and chaotic behaviour, or suicidal thinking, or paranoia. Early school exclusion, traumatic experiences, material deprivation and early contact with criminal justice systems may be implicated in first-episode psychoses and lead to adverse pathways to care.

Actions earlier in the life course, in schools and early opportunities to improve social engagement and skills, will mitigate this but are also important avenues to knowledge about potential sources of coping and help.

The lack of recognition and awareness of the role of racism in mental health care, and its role in generating and perpetuating ethnic inequalities, has many consequences:

For those who require treatment, the ability to access appropriate therapy at a time they need it is potentially limited if services are seen as unwelcoming or negative, and are stigmatising; if people’s personal experience and fears of racism are not taken seriously or denied - not least if they have experienced racism - the fear may be of not being believed, or of having to make accommodations and tolerate indignities, or their experiences may be more indirectly or subtly denied. The experience of not being heard, or being mistrusted, or being treated with hostility, are commonly expressed by services users and reveal implicit power dynamics that act as a context for inequalities. 

How to cope with racial trauma and take care of mental health:

  1. Find a role model or a mentor.

  2. Talk about your experiences.

  3. Take time to recover and validate your feelings.

  4. Connect with others who have similar experiences and can provide social support.

  5. Identify your specific triggers and try to minimise or avoid them.

  6. Consider getting involved in activism and problem-solving.

Also Read:  A quick recipe to make healthy and scrumptious vegetable pulao at home

About the author: Dr Ruhi Satija, consulting psychiatrist and counselling therapist, Mumbai.