Racism and Mental Health

Updated: Jan 19

It's that time.

That time where people of all races and ideologies drag out memes and quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and tailor them to their real and imagined uses. I have seen people that were avowed segregationsists quote Dr. King when it suited their purposes. I have heard pastors quote Dr. King's sermons, but these same pastors would not welcome a mixed race couple into their congregation. I have sat with people who profess to love God, love people and respect Dr. King, but who have no friends from other races. Nor do they seek any out. I have been with people who proclaim how they are not prejudiced, yet they remain silent when confronted with racism and prejudice in their communities.

Racism and mental health are incompatible.

Racism is harmful to people of color for a number of reasons. Racism causes trauma. Trauma contributes to mental illness. People of color are routinely subjected to both overt and hidden acts of prejudice. They may not see themselves represented in school textbooks. Neighborhoods are often segregated. Recently cases in the news have shown that black families' homes may be appraised at a lesser value than if the appraiser thinks a white family owns the property, Resumes from a person with a name that sounds as if it came from a person of color are less likely to get calls for interviews. These are generalities, but are based in fact.

Individually, racism can be traced as a root to a number of mental health issues. BIPOC are less likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment for some mental disorders. They may suffer disproportionately from anxiety and depression, but economic disparities make treatment difficult to locate. Mental health professionals may be culturally incompetent when providing treatment to their clients. Fears of inequitable treatment by law enforcement, often based on past experience, can contribute to PTSD. When people of color are not treated fairly and justly by individuals and society, the wounds go deep.

However a society that tolerates racism and prejudice is not only unheathy for the victims but for the oppressors as well. Those who commit crimes of racism not only hurt the victims, but they harm their own souls and consciences. This can contribute a cycle of shame, narcissistic thinking and further oppressive behavior. Unchecked, these behaviors can develop into extreme racism, classified as a pathological delusion. Violence is an almost certain part of this unfortunate cycle. The mental health of both the oppressed and the oppressor is at stake, as well as the collective health of society.

So what? What can we do to address these needs?

Speak up.

If you see someone being mistreated, do not remain silent. Speak up. If you see behaviors and attitudes in yourself that you recognize as unhealthy or bigoted, address it with a professional. Take time to educate yourself regarding other cultures and their specific needs and practices. Stand up for what is right. Don't be a bystander. Refuse to tolerate racism and intolerance in any capacity.

Even in yourself.

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