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Three Ways Racism Impacts Mental Health in Communities of Color #MMHAM

Written By: Zoë King 

Author’s Note: Since I am not a person of color, and thus cannot draw on personal experience to write this post, the information will be drawn from research done by experts on this topic.

This July, we are focusing our content on ‘Minority Identities and Mental Health’, a blog series honoring #MMHAM that discusses the mental health risks, issues, and resources specifically affecting minority populations and identities. 

The negative impact of racism on people of color, or POC, in America is so prolific that it is still essentially a given today. The effects of racism are seen in many aspects of life, from income to housing to what is currently the most salient topic, police brutality and other acts of violence. However, one aspect that isn’t addressed nearly as much is the immediate impact of racism on mental health. While this may seem to be a narrow issue, there is actually a barrage of different ways that racism is a detriment to mental health. This post will explore how discrimination, microaggressions, and feelings of lack of control can impact the mental health of people of color.  

1. Outright Discrimination 

It has been known for quite a while that discrimination has negative effects on mental health. Studies showing that higher reported amounts of discrimination led to lower levels of general mental health go back over 20 years. However, in more recent years, studies have been more detailed and found that increased rates of verified discrimination have ties to higher chances of symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even hallucinations and delusions (caused by the discrimination, not the other way around). Additionally, for every unarmed Black person killed in a state, residents who were Black suffered up to 2 additional weeks of poor mental health per month. While the rates of mental illness are easy to determine empirically, the connection between discrimination and mental health is harder to nail down with numbers. However, a 2012 study describes the cumulative feelings that Black people experience as a result of discrimination as, “over-scrutinized, overlooked, underappreciated, misunderstood and disrespected.” When described like that, it is no wonder that the discrimination they face takes a long-term toll on mental health.  

2. Microaggressions 

However, the open acts of discrimination that this study applies to is not the only adversity that people of color face as a result of racism. The lesser-known and much less respected sister to discrimination, microaggressions, are defined as, “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” Even though microaggressions can come from a good place, they can be extremely inappropriate, unfair, and hurtful to POC, accumulating throughout someone’s life and taking a toll on mental health. The white people most likely to commit microaggressions are often extremely averse to being criticized about what they say, since they believe that they are unbiased. Or even worse, they may think that the very concept of unintended racism is laughable. This makes it harder for POC to feel as though their feelings are valid. 

3. Feelings of Lack of Control 

Another issue that POC may face is the feeling of lack of control over the progression of their lives. POC can often face difficulty reaching society’s expectations for a successful life, due to systemic racism. The most basic form this takes is in income disparity. POC make at least $18k less than white people on average (not including Asian people, who make more than white people on average). This can make it difficult to afford investments for the future, most importantly, property. However, that didn’t really matter, as until the 1968 Fair Housing Act, banks were allowed to deny loans to POC to prevent them from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods. Even after this act was banned, the vast majority of loans given to POC were subprime loans with extremely high interest rates which can be difficult to pay off. This historic racism can prevent POC from building wealth over time even today, and has outright prevented POC from owning a stable place to live.  

Now what does this have to do with mental health? On the more obvious front, having an unstable housing situation can cause mental health issues such as psychological distresssymptoms of depression, and even an increased risk of suicide. But a more quietly insidious issue is that this can cause many POC to feel trapped. Because various racist systems have prevented the generations of people that came before them from achieving a (supposedly) normal, comfortable life, many young POC may not feel like there’s any point in trying to succeed in a society determined to keep them from doing so. This is shown through the high school dropout rate for POC being up to over twice that of white students. Additionally this general feeling of lack of control over the outcome of your life can be linked to anxiety. Overall, the racism intertwined in areas of life such as wealth and housing are a serious issue that can be detrimental to the mental health of POC. 

Of course there are certainly ways that racism affects mental health that were not touched on here, which can further aggravate these issues. In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking into the ways that individuals can address these issues and others associated with racism.  

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