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Racism And Mental Health

Here in Canada we are not immune to racism. Along with racism comes a host of negative effects, including mental health problems. In this article, we will cover how racism is perpetuated in our society, provide some knowledge about how racism can increase someone’s risk of developing mental health problems, as well as provide tangible suggestions and resources to help you cope.

Even if you have not personally experienced racism in your life, reading this article will help you to better understand how you can support as an ally.

diverse females holding a sign with face painting to stand up for racism

What is Racism?

According to the Synergi Collaborative Centreracism is, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” It works off the premise that the individuals that make up each race have collective qualities, characteristics and abilities which make them inferior or superior to another. This is one of the reasons that racism is extremely troubling as we know that each person has their own personality, beliefs, values and behaviour that are individual to them.

Racism can also be multidimensional intersecting with other oppressions such as poverty, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc. leading to even greater levels of marginalization.

black and white photo of woman holding racism is a public health crisis sign in the air

How Does Racism Occur?

Racism can occur on a structural/institutional level (education, government, etc.), an individual level (being assumed that you are a certain way because of your race) or internally through the process of macro- and micro-aggressions.

Macro-aggressions are overt expressions of racism such as racial and ethnic slurs, being physically attacked or not receiving proper wages due to race. Microagressions, on the other hand, are subtler and may be unintentional but still contribute to racism. These are assumption-based behaviours such as a believing someone is a criminal or assigning them a specific level of intelligence based on their race, trying to compare your oppression to someone of another race, assuming that you are not a racist because you have friends or associations with people of colour or silencing people when they are discussing race.

diagram of the impact of racism on mental health - black lives matter

What Are the Effects of Racism on Mental Health?

Research has shown on countless occasions that experiencing or internalizing racism can have a significant impact on one’s mental health. Some of these effects include:

  • Increased risk of depression or suicide
  • Increased levels of anxiety and stress related illnesses (i.e. high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, nervous system problems, other physical ailments)—When people experience stressful situations like discrimination, their body moves into a state of fight or flight, which in the past was key to our survival. Today however, when the fight or flight system is frequently engaged, it causes inflammation that could lead to chronic health problems in the long run.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Substance Abuse Problems
  • Intergenerational Racism/Trauma—Can be experienced by children who observe racism or racist behaviours and affect school performance and developmental milestones—especially if these acts are towards their parents or caregivers. Symptoms include fear, hypervigilance, confusion, shame or guilt, self-blame and headaches.
  • Internalized beliefs- Conscious or unconscious acceptance of common racial tropes that can lead to low self-esteem and increased symptoms of psychological distress.
  • Racial Battle Fatigue-Resulting from a daily struggle with racism or racist-based behaviours, causing a person to constantly be on guard to protect against the hostile environment.
  • Feelings of helplessness or worthlessness
  • Avoidance behaviours—Avoiding situations and places that could lead to an increase in mental health symptoms as a result of racism, even if they would be meaningful, valuable or positive for the individual such as employment, education or healthcare facilities.
black lives matter sign, no racism sign, and love not war sign

How Do I Cope?

There are many ways to cope with the mental health symptoms that occur as a result of racism. Some of these include:

  • Practicing self-compassion—Acknowledge that your feelings and emotions are justified in the face of racist behaviour.
  • Thinking about how you would comfort another person who is experiencing the same situation and affording yourself the same compassion—It may be helpful to write a letter or in a journal to process these emotions.
  • Repeat a positive mantra—A mantra can be a word such as ‘courage’ or ‘strength’ or a phrase like ‘this is a tough situation, but I will get through this’.
  • Surround yourself with allies who know your value and worth—To provide support and build you up. Also work to recognize your own value.
  • Remind yourself that you are not to blame for the racial behaviours you experience—Acknowledge the difference between positive and negative feedback.
  • Make a list—Of the things you are proud of or that make you uniquely you.
  • Practicing mindfulness—Check out our article on mindfulness tips for more information.
  • Meditation—Check out this article for more about meditation.
  • Manage your social media usage—Here’s an article filled with tips to create a more positive social media experience for yourself.
  • Connect with our Telephone-Based Supportive Counselling line
  • Learn about free online and virtual mental health supports—Through our province-wide BounceBack program

Mental Illness Impact of Discrimination

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