October is Black History Awareness month, and we’re going to focus on how experiencing racism can affect mental health.
But first, let’s start at the beginning – what is race, and racism? Race is a label that groups people together based on physical traits. In law, race includes our skin colour, nationality and ethnic origin. Racism is the discrimination, prejudice and/or judgement of people or groups based on these traits.
The history of race is a troubled one, with its roots in the social hierarchy created to justify the violence and oppression of the slave trade. While things have most definitely moved on since the era of colonialism, many people do still experience racism in varying forms.
This may be overt, with a clear and deliberate intention to offend or cause harm, which might involve physical or verbal abuse, being threatened, or experiencing bullying or exclusion. It can also be far more subtle and unintended, in the form of actions called microagressions – for example, comments about food, hair or clothes, making sweeping generalisations about a group (such as ‘Asians are all good at maths’), or asking where someone is ‘really from’. These often stem from unconscious bias, which is when someone unknowingly internalises and reinforces racial stereotypes. Even if it isn’t deliberate, it can still be upsetting or offensive, and can work to invalidate and demean the experience of those on the receiving end.
Racism can also be institutional, which is when whole organisations, such as education, policing and criminal justice or healthcare, conduct themselves in ways that discriminate against minorities, even if they do not intend to. For example, there is a higher infant mortality rate amongst black communities, and black people are far more likely to be stopped by police than white people. It is not necessarily deliberate, but it is still racism and still affects day to day life.
Dealing with racism day after day can take its toll on mental health. Even if some actions seem small and insignificant, when a multitude of them add up, it can be stressful, exhausting and upsetting. It can also leave you feeling isolated or unwelcome, which can in turn lead to feeling unsafe or fearful. Never knowing when you might experience racism can leave a constant uncertainty and feeling of being on edge, worrying about how to protect yourself in certain situations or whether you will feel vulnerable. It can also make you feel angry and frustrated, with a sense of powerlessness and lack of control.
All of this can contribute to higher risk of acute mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, psychosis or suicidal thoughts. Indeed, research shows that people from black communities in the UK are more likely than any other group to experience mental health issues, and are less likely to receive treatment (which likely stems from a long-held mistrust of systems that have historically not supported or treated minorities fairly.)
It is also the case that experiencing racism on a regular basis can lead to internalised racism, which is where individuals feel negative about themselves because they take on board the comments and attitudes they hear and start to believe them. They might feel pressure to change how they look or downplay aspects of their personality, and instead try to fit in with the majority – a process called assimilation. All of this can lead to low self-esteem, lack of self-worth, and generally feeling unsure about who you are.
Interestingly, despite the origins of the concept of race, it can actually serve to provide a sense of community and identity. Going through shared experiences creates solidarity, which is the basis of a robust support network who can understand and help each other.
To know that there are other people who empathise with your experiences and can offer advice or compassion helps boost self-esteem, and can help provide an antidote to internalised racism and instead empower you to embrace your identity, culture and race.
The key thing to remember is that it is not your fault. Racism is the fault of perpetrators, and it is institutions and society as a whole that must learn and change. The most important thing is to practice self-care, including looking after your physical health with exercise, healthy eating and good sleep, expressing yourself through creativity, and celebrating all aspects of your identity – this will help you protect yourself from racist attitudes, and give you the skills to lift yourself up and develop coping mechanisms that allow you to thrive.