The following article was written by Carol Evenson for Rtor.org. To view the original article, click here.
Race and mental health are common issues of discussion these days. There was a time, not too long ago, when both issues were considered private matters. Today, people are starting to realize that both topics are vitally important on both a personal and societal level. What’s more, the culture as a whole is also beginning to realize just how intertwined the two subjects are. We really can’t discuss race without considering mental health. Likewise, mental health researchers need to consider race as a control for methodology in their experimental design.
People aren’t interchangeable. We all carry the weight of both our cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Even more, we’re impacted by the assumptions people make regarding these backgrounds. The combination of both elements means that race and ethnicity impact the foundation of our self-identity and related mental health concerns.
The Impact of Race Related Stressors
One of the most significant aspects of race in mental health comes from race-related stressors. Of course, racism is the most obvious stressor related to ethnic background among people of color. Racism is typically seen as the categorization of social groups by race. The most obvious example of this practice is seeing people more negatively merely due to skin color. However, even positive assumptions about race can have negative implications for individuals.
Racism, even so-called positive stereotypes, are ultimately dehumanizing. These beliefs effectively tell people that their autonomy is somehow less than that of peers with different skin colors. And the results of those assumptions can be damaging on any number of different levels. Racism has a detrimental effect on multiple areas of mental health. And those mental health issues can further manifest themselves in physical ailments.
The Impact of Mental Stress on Physical Health
We can see a good example of how mental health impacts physical health by considering a recent study on obesity in African American students. The study examined how racial microaggressions can promote maladaptive coping strategies. In particular, it looked at the possibility of Black women trying to essentially eat away stress related to racism. This is particularly significant given that African Americans are more likely to be obese or overweight than White Americans. What’s more, Black women are especially prone to weight-related health issues. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, four out of five African American women are overweight or obese. This puts them at severe risk for any number of physical ailments related to weight.
Of course, racism can also prompt even more severe coping mechanisms. Self-harm is a real and quite worrisome result of racism. Suicide attempts have gone up among African American high school students by 73% in the past three decades. And mental health officials are concerned that this trend may continue to escalate in the future. Racial issues related to mental health are also compounded by a lack of proper health care. For example, only 25% of African Americans will seek mental health care under difficult situations. This is in comparison to 40% of White Americans who will seek help if they find themselves facing mental health issues. People of color face harsher challenges than White Americans while also receiving less support.
How We Can Improve the Situation
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the impact of racism on mental health. However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. The fact that these issues are now recognized is an important step forward. Many Black people are entering the mental health field to help balance the challenges of racism with positive action.
Mental health professionals as a whole are also starting to become more aware of the special challenges faced by people of color. Techniques such as positive reinforcement are being used to help empower people on multiple levels. This includes people of color entering the mental health field on both a patient and practitioner level.
What’s more, the percentage of White Americans who feel that racism is a major problem has risen from 51% to 76% over the past five years. It remains to be seen how this will translate to direct community support. However, one of the more difficult aspects of racism is that it deprives people of social cohesion. Racism is usually incredibly isolating. Race-related discrimination typically happens among minority groups. This automatically means that people will tend to lack widespread social support when they encounter it. People of color may find their social opportunities expanding as people in majority groups start to better understand the challenges posed by racism.
Finding Hope in a Changing World
The changing worldviews in both mental health care and society as a whole may suggest a brighter future. As people begin to see the problem, they can start to work on it. This means that communities can become more inclusive. It also means that barriers of entry for proper mental health care may improve in the future.
For the moment, the resources to improve people’s mental health are there. However, societal issues often make it hard for anyone to take that first step toward finding help. This problem is often compounded even further in racial minority groups. We can hope that increasing awareness of mental health’s importance will translate to more people receiving proper care.