In July, we acknowledge Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, we’ve seen discussions of experiences of racism and the detrimental impact it has on equitable access to resources such as housing, healthcare, and education. However, we don’t often see the impact racism has on mental health. Experiences of racism have negative effects on the mental health of people of color, particularly anxiety, anger, and feelings of sadness.
One in four Black Americans will experience an anxiety disorder sometime during their lives. 3.1% will experience panic disorder and 3% will experience obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, Black Americans are far less likely to seek out mental health treatment and less likely to stay in treatment. S
Some studies suggest that there is a link between racism and experiencing anxiety. Experiencing racism negatively affects stress and anxiety in three different ways. These are perceptions of lack of control, internalization, and avoidance of valued action.
Perception of control is how an individual feels they are in control of their life in terms of safety and environment. Individuals are not responsible for experiencing racism and have little control over whether or not they experience it. This can lead to feelings of lack of control over an individual’s environment leading to stress and anxiety. Having frequent experiences with racial discrimination can lead to feelings of not being valued or of having no worth, further contributing to mental health issues.
Through internalization, individuals who experience racism often internalize these beliefs about themselves, eventually believing that negative or critical thoughts or statements about themselves are true. This leads to low self-esteem and higher stress levels. Studies have shown that believing negative thoughts about one’s self is associated with anxiety disorders. The internalization of negative beliefs can also cause individuals to feel helpless, worthless, sad, and fearful.
Avoidance of valued action means that those who experience racism may avoid acknowledging feelings of hurt or may avoid experiences due to anxiety (Wilson and Murrell, 2004). Avoiding emotions can lead to further stress and anxiety, and not acknowledging feelings about experiences of racism can affect long-term mental health issues.
Anxiety is often overwhelming. It can lead to elevated heart rate and blood pressure, continued negative thoughts, and feelings of worry. Individuals may also practice avoidance of valued action by avoiding people or places where a racist experience occurred. By experiencing racism at work, school, or in other social environments, these areas may cause stress and anxiety and therefore be avoided.
There are several effective strategies for those experiencing racism and for managing racism’s effects on mental health. One is to make choices that are based upon values, which are things that are meaningful to us. During stressful situations, individuals who understand their values can be more aware of what truly matters to them and make choices and act accordingly based upon those values. This could be standing up to a racists co-worker because you value respect, or seeking out further help for students experiencing racism at school from an advisor or teacher because they value their education. Deciding to take action against racism when values are being violated can help minimize some of the anxiety and stress.
Be mindful of emotions is also a way to lessen anxiety. Trying to control or suppress emotions has been shown to increase stress and anxiety. While it is natural to want to turn away from negative emotions during an experience, allowing yourself to feel sad or angry and acknowledging why you feel those feelings is important to mental health. These emotions provide us with valuable information and can help us adapt to life’s challenges. Our society tells us that it’s not good to feel anxious, sad, or angry, or that these feelings are signs of weakness or signal a lack of self-control. However, when we allow ourselves to feel these emotions, we also practice self-compassion.
When we practice self-compassion, we learn to appreciate our emotions and our emotional responses to racism and injustice as being a natural part of the human experience. In the face of racism, feeling sad or angry is an appropriate emotional response and not unreasonable or something to be avoided intentionally.