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Race and Mental Health

Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma. In addition to life-endangering encounters and severe traumatic experiences, people of color often experience day-to-day subtle traumas like:

  • People who avoid them out of ignorance and fear
  • Institutions, like banks and credit companies, that discriminate against them
  • Mass incarceration
  • School curricula that ignore their contributions to society
  • Racial profiling

These large and small traumas compound to perpetuate mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder in underserved communities without access to adequate mental health services.

What is race?

Even the concept of race has a racist history. In the 18th century, anthropologists and philosophers used geographical location and traits like skin color to place people in different “racial” groupings. This separation of different “types” of people had no scientific basis, but it fueled the misinformed idea that biological differences existed between light skinned individuals and darker skinned populations. 

What is racism?

The antiquated idea that some groups of people were biologically different than others laid the groundwork for the slave trade and colonialism—two historically significant and culturally detrimental events stemming from the thought that white Europeans were superior to other races.

Today, slavery and colonialism feel like parts of a distant history, but racism still persists in new forms. 

  • Systemic racism – Systemic racism has three components: history, culture, and policy. 

Historical racism provides the framework for modern day oppression. While slavery is no longer legal in the United States, mass incarceration disproportionately affects Black Americans and utilizes them for free labor, a direct reflection of historically racist practices.

Cultural racism accepts, normalizes, and perpetuates racist rhetoric. It solidifies through entertainment and media that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are poor, live in rundown neighborhoods, or act like “thugs.” 

Institutional racism allows policymakers to create a society where the advancement of BIPOC is stunted by the system. Wars on drugs and crime that disproportionately target communities of color create a mass incarceration problem, limit generational wealth, and disenfranchise large portions of non-white citizens.

  • Interpersonal racism – Interpersonal racism is the mistreatment of BIPOC through conscious or unconscious racial bias. It includes distancing and stigmatizing people of color out of a belief they are inferior or inherently different; discriminating at work or school based on stereotypes about competency, honesty, or diligence; and direct threats and harassment based on race.
  • Internalized racism – White supremacy can affect the minds of BIPOC to the point they believe and accept that they are inferior. This can lead to inter-racial hostility where members of a marginalized community demonize and discriminate against their own race.

What is the mental impact?

The burden placed on victims of racism is mental and physical. During stressful situations—like being harrassed in the workplace or followed around in a store—stress hormones are released. Repetitive spikes in stress hormones can cause lasting physical and mental health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and anxiety. 

Here are some other quick statistics about the impact of racism on mental health:

  • BIPOC often experience a disproportionately high burden of disability from mental disorders.
  • People who identify as being two or more races are most likely to report mental illness than any other racial or ethnic group.
  • Native and Indigenous Americans report higher rates of PTSD and alcohol dependence than any other racial or ethnic group.
  • Cultural incompetence of healthcare providers likely contributes to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of mental illness in BIPOC.
  • Physicians are 23% more verbally dominant and engaged in 33% less patient-centered communication with Black patients than with white patients.

At Valley Oaks Health, we provide healthcare to all people. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or insured status, we welcome you to find the help you need to live your most fulfilling life.

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