Helping News                                                   May, 2022   Issue 159

The Mental Health Toll Of Racism

While we’re on the topic of social justice, we need to talk about another issue—how discrimination undermines mental health.
Article by: Rebecca Dolgin

Usually the conversation around inequality centers on things we can measure. We can see the disparity on just about every quantifier of equality:

Income. In 2017 black men were paid less than 70 cents for every $1 paid to white men.

Net worth. The white-black income gap in median net worth increased from $132,800 in 2013 to $153,500 in 2016.

Employment rate. Black unemployment is consistently twice that of white unemployment.

Health. Even the coronavirus is more likely to impact black Americans than white Americans.

But what we can’t plot on a chart and see with the same clarity is the cumulative effect, not just of these stark contrasts, but of the everyday strains, known as microaggressions. The slight suspicion, nominal service, and dismissiveness that mark a more subtle form of racism have devastating consequences on mental health.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association (APA), discrimination-related stress is linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression—even in children. This report doesn’t come as a surprise, but the severity of the problem may.

In the APA’s Stress In America: The Impact of Discrimination report, American Indian/Alaska Natives (81 percent), Blacks (76 percent), Asians (74 percent) and Hispanics (72 percent) report having experienced everyday discrimination, compared to 61 percent of all adults.

And over half of the black respondents (60 percent) added that their lives have been “at least a little harder because of discrimination.”

How Discrimination Affects Health

People who say they have faced discrimination rate their stress levels higher, on average, than those who say they have not experienced discrimination. That’s true across racial and ethnic groups. Elevated stress then creates a domino of mental and physical issues.
Here’s what happens: Race-based stress increases cortisol, raises blood pressure, and increases heart rate. Researchers in Scandinavia have also found that race-based social stress disrupts sleep.

The cascade from these two reactions can lead to anything from chronic conditions like high blood pressure to cognitive setbacks. Depressive symptoms are one of the most common and documented of these effects. Study after study confirms that an increase in reported encounters with discrimination is associated with an increase in symptoms of depression.

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