• Kayte Thomas

Racism is a mental health concern

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

There are so many great resources being shared around the internet right now attempting to teach people how to have important conversations about race and racism. One aspect that I have noticed is frequently missing from the explanation as to why a comprehensive understanding of issues surrounding racism is necessary is the discussion of effects on mental health. So, this is what today’s blog post will focus on. Before we do this though, let’s have a quick review of some aspects of systemic racism to frame the topic. Systemic racism basically means the policies and practices embedded in our culture and our institutions which are regularly accepted but are in fact racist. If you haven’t heard of that term or are struggling to understand it, there are many resources available just a quick google away for further explanation.

For many people, it’s easy to identify overt racism. Blatant discrimination, hate speech, use of the “N” word or other slurs, or images of the KKK burning crosses may come to mind when you think about racism. And you’re right, those are all racist things. It is precisely because of this obvious racism though that most people would say they are “not racist” since they do not do these things. But it is the less obvious acts of racism which are so pervasive in our society and have crept into every facet of our lives that allow everyday people to think of racism as a normalized experience. And when people perceive something which is highly problematic as not being a problem, this allows the problem not only to persist but to intensify. And the problem is of course, racism.

Perhaps you’re already informed of some of the other issues of concern as well. Maybe you know that black women are more likely to die during childbirth and black men are disproportionately killed by police, and you are justifiably outraged by this. You could already be aware that people with non-white sounding names are less likely to be selected from hiring pools and are more likely to face discrimination in the workplace once hired. Maybe you understand how redlining and housing discrimination in the past negatively affects the educational paths of minority students today. It's possible that you know about disparities in health outcomes due to racial bias which impacts medical care access and treatment everyday. You might have some insight into what systemic racism looks like and understand that these issues exist.

But do you also pay attention to the seemingly benevolent stereotypes which are steeped in racism and understand how harmful those are as well? By this I mean dynamics such as the model minority myth in which certain people – usually those of Asian descent – are expected to excel and perform at very high levels, especially math and science and often music. Or the expectation that “good” immigrants, particularly Middle Eastern or Asian ones, will come here to start small businesses and contribute “appropriately” to the economy. Or the idea that black and brown male youth should excel at sports by nature. Why is this harmful? Because it places people in boxes and creates division by othering them. It is not inclusive or welcoming. This type of racism says you can be part of the in crowd IF you behave as we tell you to. And the “we” in this scenario is the dominant culture, which in the U.S. has been normed to more affluent white people – men, really (but I digress). This dynamic confines the experiences of black and brown folks into a narrowly accepted construct forcing them to conform to certain expectations while simultaneously avoiding the negative stereotypes as well. Sounds exhausting right?

When someone walks through the world in a space that constantly communicates that you are not enough the way you are whether it is through overt displays or more subtle methods (Can’t find bandaids in your skin tone? There’s a policy against your natural hair at school or work? It’s difficult to find someone who looks like you represented in movies as anyone other than the funny person or the token minority with predictable character? Leadership in your organization consists of only or mainly white men? Etc.) then this has a measurably negative effect on well-being. It harms self-image, and we know this is true even at very young ages as studies have shown that babies and toddlers begin to show racial bias and preschool age children have a preference for white dolls over brown ones. The explanation for this is….racism. Children pick up on cues from those around them very well, and racism is communicated through words and actions in ways that are often unintentional because this mindset is so commonplace in our culture. Systemic racism is commonplace in our culture.

Imagine for a moment how harmful it is for a very young brown child to already feel not good enough and less than others in the world after just a few short years of life. This forms their entire world view and creates damaging emotional scars. And instead of having those around the child celebrate them and ensure there are supports in place to nurture healthy development, they are instead told if you just behave this way/look this way/talk this way things would be better, which is the message commonly sent to by overt and covert racism. Now there is a layer of blame added to a fundamental component of shame. This affects mental health and self-perception from a very early age. Poor self image and low self esteem combined with lack of social support are known risk factors for mental health concerns. Now add to that the frequent expectation that black and brown people will not be overly expressive in emotion and this create perfect conditions for a variety of issues - all caused by external circumstances.

Additionally, the constant threat from racial bias quite literally affects the nervous system. We know that BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) have experiences such as being followed in a store due to inaccurate biases of theft, receiving mistrustful glances while walking down the street, are at greater risk of violence and harassment from anyone in positions of power, and experience microaggressions regularly, just to mention a few regular concerns. These events naturally make someone feel “on edge” which effectively primes the nervous system to expect danger. When the nervous system is activated for threats, this floods the body with hormones and neurochemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline which are intended only as a temporary boost to react to and avoid danger. However, when this is a frequent experience the body remains in a high-stress state. And it is this high stress state which can create mental health issues because ongoing exposure to molecules such as adrenaline and cortisol affect something called the HPA axis. This includes the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands and is a critical component of the body’s stress response. It is not intended to remain activated consistently though, but the stress of systemic racism will keep the HPA axis activated in a person for long periods of time which becomes chronic. Long term effects of chronic stress include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and depression, amongst other issues. This can also deplete the brain's store of serotonin, which is commonly known as the "happiness chemical" because it plays such a significant role in depression when depleted. See the problem here? There are also physical ramifications which can complicate concerns as well such as weight gain, increased risk of stroke, and heart attacks.

Racism is quite literally a mental health issue. Because of it's prevalence though, I would argue that it is a public health issue.

Today's blog post isn’t going to talk about how to cope with the effects of systemic racism because this only succeeds at furthering oppression. Instead, we will challenge injustice and start addressing a few ways to learn how to change the paradigm. It is never appropriate to tell those who are suffering that they need to find ways to endure the trauma as this normalizes oppression and further marginalizes those who are already being harmed. My intention in writing today is to provide education on ways that various forms of racism contribute to adverse mental health effects. I often find that it is helpful to understand what is happening in the body and a glimpse at how racism triggers chronic stress and how chronic stress contributes to mental health concerns has hopefully been beneficial for those who are reading this.

So now that you know that many acts of racism are subtly normalized in our society, that most people don’t realize they are engaging in these covert acts of racism, and that these issues create a great deal of strain on those who are affected….what can you do? Start by looking at this graphic to determine if you or those you know do any of these things. Chances are, you’ll recognize several. When you have identified some items on the pyramid which you or those around you use to contribute to the problem, go read up a little more on why specifically this is an issue and how to practice healthier, more racially conscious habits. If there is something on this list that you don't recognize, read about that too. You can unlearn ways you have been unintentionally contributing to the problem of systemic racism. Take the time to educate yourself.

Let’s go beyond that though. If you are a parent, it is critical to have equity-based discussions around race with your children. Since children pick up on social cues before they are able to speak, this means that you must intentionally teach your children to be anti-racist (not just “not racist”) from birth. Yes, I said from birth. What does this look like? It’s as simple as ensuring the board books you read to your baby are diverse ethnically, religiously, and culturally. Take some time to assess your home and review the books that you or your children are reading. Then, diversify them. It’s as easy as googling “diversify my bookshelf” with an age range. Try it!

Speaking of books, here is a great reading list for adults. Also one of my personal favourites, How to Be an Anti Racist, I think is a must. Make a commitment to start consuming more materials (books, poetry, movies, social media presences, etc.) to educate yourself on this topic.

Beyond that, what can you do if you have more power – if you’re an employer, for example? Give your black and brown employees a paid day off to rest. Yes, only the black and brown employees right now. Better yet, a whole week if you can afford it. Racism is a trauma, and trauma resides in the body and the current events in this country are re-triggering years of personal and systemic experiences with racism for every single black and brown skinned person here right now. They need to rest, and to heal, and to know that they are prioritized and valued and cared for. They need a little bit of respite to lower their adrenaline and cortisol levels and calm the HPA axis. It’s a physical need. Ask their white coworkers to help cover some of the work too, and explain why it is necessary.

When you start to understand how prevalent racism is in our society – that it’s not just the egregious overt acts which constitute racism – and the ways that average people unintentionally engage in covert racists acts, you start to see just how much this affects everything in life. And then you start to understand the vast impact this has on the people who are affected; minorities but most specifically in the U.S., black/African American individuals. Then once you understand the physical and emotional toll this takes on people, you start to feel driven to change the system. I hope this post has given a little bit of insight to spark that process in some people. If you were able to identify a way that you contribute to the problem in the graphic shown above, then you are directly contributing to a harmful environment which has negative mental health ramifications for people of colour in this nation. And it is up to you to start changing that. I would love to hear about what you’ve learned and how you've decided to make change going forwards. Whether it’s donating to black owned businesses, diversifying your bookshelves, engaging in these crucial conversations with others, taking a stance in the workplace to change policy, or something else – everyone can take action. Go, start now.

Because Black Lives (and mental health!) Matter.

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© 2020 by Kayte Thomas, MSW, LCSW.