It’s the 21st Century, and George Floyd is choked by a white officer on camera. It’s the 21st Century, and racism is still an issue, that too worldwide. In France, two French women were charged for the racist stabbing of a veiled Muslim woman. These incidents aren’t carried out in isolation, these incidents do not suddenly spring upon us and simply occur. It stems from a mindset that sees others as inferior based on their physical difference, and from the frequent usage of racist remarks. It escalates because, even in the 21st Century, racist jokes, conversations, stereotypes, the portrayal of media, and conversations with friends are common – and horrifyingly, are excused.
While racial profiling is responsible for the socio-economic disparity, we will dive into how racism affects mental health, which can then contribute to the systemic cycle of stunted progress.
What is racism, and how it affects on mental health?
You might not realize it, but defining racism has become trickier over-time. Dictionary would define it as “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
However, this word carries more baggage than you would realize. If people only equate racism as slavery, as what happened in the world 50 years ago, then it’s them turning a blind eye to the gross unfairness today.
The very fact that this requires empathy to understand sheds light on the fact that racism has a steep influence on the mental well-being of any person. Racial microaggressions such as mentally grouping people of the same race and implications of subtle inferiority constitute as racism as well.
For a person of color, it’s everywhere. It impacts their social mobility, and their access to equal opportunities to economic resources such as housing, healthcare and education. At a structural level, they may face harsher sentencing in the judicial system or voter disenfranchisement.
Consider a life where a person, their family, and ancestors have faced discrimination for as long as one could remember. Can you empathize with the level of paranoia one has to face every day? Not knowing whether they might be targeted for their color, and harassed for it, let alone the crass remarks and jokes directed their way. Knowing that their life is more complicated than the peers around them, that they have to struggle twice as much to get access to the same basic necessities, such as being treated like an individual human.
In the very least, it is an extreme form of bullying which has lasting effect spanning over an individual’s entire life.
Fact Check: Racism and Mental Health
There is a clear indication that violent racist events have a direct link to mental health. Since the murder of George Floyd, symptoms of anxiety and depression were elevated in non-Hispanic black adults from 35.6% to 40.5%, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other mental health effects include stress, emotional distress, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Statistics say that about one in four black Americans will experience anxiety disorder, specifically social anxiety disorder, at some point. Research in 2018 suggested that even the fear of racism or racist events is harmful and even if it does not impact mental health, it undoubtedly results in a negative effect to a person’s resilience, hope, and motivation.
This continuous exposure to mental health stressors contributes to physical ailments as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people of color have a higher risk of developing hypertension. Other chronic conditions include heart diseases and kidney diseases. To deal with their trauma, increased risk of exposure to coping mechanisms such as smoking, alcohol use, and unhealthy eating habits is also probable.
But it’s worse than you imagine…
This is a no-brainer, though, right? Traumatic events lead to mental health trauma and consequently impacts physical health as well. But the effects are more significant than you imagine because discrimination is not only in isolated violent events.
- Internalized Acceptance of Racism
Discriminatory experiences perpetuate anger and helplessness. Many people develop a perception of a lack of control over their own safety and environment. As a result of facing such dismissive experiences from a young age, some people internalize this problem and start to accept the negative beliefs of others and internalize inferiority and lack of self-belief.
- Intergenerational Trauma
Intergenerational racial trauma from experiences of grandparents, parents, and other family members may be carried forward in the form of inherited paranoia, fear, and hypervigilance. This may even extend to self-blame and guilt following any discriminatory racial incident.
- Racial Battle Fatigue
Moreover, racial battle fatigue is a real problem, as well. Continually having to fight harder to make themselves heard, to demand respect for the values and culture, created the feeling of not being valued. The chronically hostile environment has one on the alert continually to respond to each insult or attack, which is exhausting.
How to cope with stress resulting from racism?
- Accept emotions:
Instead of brushing your emotions and experiences away, acknowledge them and discuss them. The way to show resilience is to recognize its existence instead of indulging in toxic positivity.
- Show some self-love:
The road of self-love begins with accepting that you are only human and that there is no reason why you should accept society’s version of you. Define yourself! If you are someone who responds to racism with anger, accept it, show some self-compassion. Negative experiences incite negative responses, and it does not make you a wrong person. Journaling to yourself with compassionate words is one way to address this! There are other ways you can show yourself self-care too.
- Identify your values!
Identify what means the most to you, especially during stressful moments and make choices based off on those values. When faced with a stressful situation, breathe in and out, and count consciously to three while reminding yourself of your values, before making a choice. Make the choice of the kind of person you want to be.
Countering the adverse effects of racism on mental health, if you have been a victim to it, is easier said than done. This article, in no way, attempts to lecture you on how you should fight your battles. This article only serves to increase awareness of why people should indulge in self-awareness and contemplate the consequences of their actions. Moreover, this article serves to celebrate the survivors who still find strength inside them to carry on their day with their head held high!