Racism and Mental Health: pt 1

Guest post by Michelle Palmer

When Connie asked me to write this post, I agreed without hesitation. As I started actually writing the post, the doubts set in. I may or may not be qualified to tackle this subject, but as I’ve learned through my own blog, I believe I know how to point us in the right direction. Sometimes the best thing I can offer is direction to the resources already created by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color) scholars and writers. That’s what I hope to do here. 

First and foremost, for those of us who are white. We need to make sure we aren’t adding to the emotional labor that our friends of color are already doing. 

“Don’t demand emotional labor from your black, brown, and indigenous friends. Especially right now. Take whatever they have to offer and don’t make demands upon them.” – Ally Henny

Secondly, we must know that we will never fully understand the emotional and mental toll of racism. Laura Cathcart Robbins, guest contributor on Huffpost, wrote an article that is real and raw. She expresses emotions that I, as a white person, can not possibly understand. But that doesn’t mean I don’t need to read them.

“I am too full of emotion to even begin to know how to respond to anything. Though I’m not leaving the house very often, I feel like I don’t have any time to process what’s going on. Sometimes it’s like I’m the one who can’t breathe. This week, I’ve had Black friends who called me after breaking down in tears ‘for no reason’ in a meeting, eating breakfast, or even during a workout. I have Black friends who have had to take themselves off text chains and stopped answering their phones.  

We are heavy with unnameable grief. We are suffering.” 

I’ve always known that Black history is important; understanding how we got here matters if we want to make it better. Those of us who are not white will never understand the full Black experience, but we can learn. And it’s important that we learn so we can do our part to make it better. 

THE EFFECTS OF RACISM ON MENTAL HEALTH 

As a white woman in America who cares deeply about racial justice, the last couple weeks have been hard. It hurts to see police brutality, it’s hard when people still claim that racism doesn’t actually still exist, there’s an added tension in the air (beyond what Covid gave us). 

But think of people of color. Think of how they’ve faced the realities of police brutality and other abuses of power, regular proof of lingering racism, palpable tension every time they enter predominantly white spaces. If I think the last couple of weeks have been hard, I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Black in a world that routinely denies their humanity. In several of the articles I’ve read for this post, the term used is “daily stressors.” Let that sink in. I for one am thankful we have the studies to prove it.  (Allow me to clarify my use of the word “thankful.” I so wish this type of research wasn’t necessary, but as long as it is, I’ll be thankful for those who have used their time and talent to complete this research.) 

The clearest conclusions I found came from this paper, Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Effects of Racism on Mental Health Among Residents of Black Neighborhoods in New York City. See the excerpts below (emphasis added):  

“Whether as discrete instances of discriminatory exclusion from societal resources or as behaviors and social narratives that subjugate people of African ancestry, racism causes pain that many Black people would rather not acknowledge and to which many Whites remain inured.8 This pain is borne out in empirical research showing that racism negatively affects mental health.” 

I found this next excerpt so interesting, especially in light of so many white people wanting a “colorblind” society, suggesting that somehow by ignoring race we will end racism. 

“These findings evoke earlier reports suggesting that denying racism negatively affected hypertension.25 Other work has shown that Black people who accept unfair treatment as a fact of life have greater distress than those who take action and talk about it.14 In our sample, it appeared that actively processing the reality of race blunted the blow to mental health, in agreement with other studies. For example, individuals for whom racial identity is central to self-concept experience less negative impact from discrimination on psychological distress.26 This may be because these individuals are better equipped to mobilize coping responses to racism and to distinguish between actions directed at their racial group and at themselves.7” 

Racism is real. The effects of racism are real too. These “daily stressors,” stressors that we as white people will never experience, take a real, undeniable, and now scientifically proven toll on the mental (and thus physical) health of our Black brothers and sisters. And it’s not okay. 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  1. Listen. Listen to Black voices, and use your platform to amplify them.
  2. Do not tell people of color that you are not a racist. Trust me, I’m from the American South; I’ve heard certifiably racist people claim that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Words can ring hollow.It does a whole lot more good if you’re honest about the reality of the situation: racist ideas are in your head and racist feelings are in your heart. As an antiracist, part of the work will always be to root out racism, even in ourselves. Claiming otherwise doesn’t do any good. 
  3. Don’t ask Black people to do work for you that you can do yourself. Google is free. (If you’re having trouble finding a particular resource you can email me at tuesdayjusticeblog@gmail.com.) 
  4. If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you know that acts of overt racism are off the table. But also make sure you’re not committing microaggressions, and instead, commit microcompassion/microinclusion at every opportunity. Macro-antiracism takes time, but there are small ways every day we can lift the load of our BIPOC brothers and sisters.
  5. Do the work. Fight racism. Fight for mental health. Fight for equality in healthcare. Read the links below and understand more about the harmful effects of racism. Share them with friends and family. Call out racism when you see it. Read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: 

  • “The White Space” Elijah Anderson, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 2015, Vol. 1(1) 10–21 © American Sociological Association 2014
  • The Effects of Racism on Mental Health: How to Cope | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Anxiety and Depression Association of America – Featuring: Dr Karen G. Martínez, MD, MSc and Jessica Graham-LoPresti
    “This webinar focuses on the negative impact of racism on mental health symptoms for people of color.  In addition, we will provide some coping resources to deal with the stress, anxiety, and overall emotional toll of racism.”
  • The impact of racism on mental health, The Synergi Collaborative Centre – Key excerpt: “There is a large and growing body of robust 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. The evidence suggests racism is followed by more experiences of hallucinations and delusions; and if physical assault is involved, post-traumatic stress can emerge.1-6 7 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.”
  • The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health, Maria Trent, Danielle G. Dooley, Jacqueline Dougé, SECTION ON ADOLESCENT HEALTH, COUNCIL ON COMMUNITY PEDIATRICS and COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE, Pediatrics August 2019. Key excerpt: “Although progress has been made toward racial equality and equity, the evidence to support the continued negative impact of racism on health and well-being through implicit and explicit biases, institutional structures, and interpersonal relationships is clear. The objective of this policy statement is to provide an evidence-based document focused on the role of racism in child and adolescent development and health outcomes.”
  • Physiological and Psychological Impact of Racism and Discrimination for African-Americans, American Psychological Association
  • How Racism, Trauma And Mental Health Are Linked, Side Effects Public Media, interview with Shardé Smith, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Podcast 165: How to begin unwiring racism from our brains & society – Dr. Caroline Leaf

To read more posts by Michelle Palmer, please go to tuesdayjustice.org and check out her post
White People, This is Where We Start

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