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Racism and its effects on mental health in Black communities

by Maria Tumolo

Talking about mental health in Black communities is taboo. There seems to be an unwritten rule that the subject is a no-go area. Perhaps it’s due to collective social conditioning that we are and have to always be strong and resilient. However, with recent global events, the community experienced a collective malaise.

Scientists have long proclaimed stress to be the precursor to many illnesses. So, is it any wonder that in many countries, Black people are found to be more at risk of developing hypertension and stress-related conditions?

What is the source of all of this disease? Could it be a result of living a life under surveillance from the public, trying to be blend in, and keeping quiet to get by, in addition to constantly gauging if a comment was intentionally racist? Frankly, there is more research that needs to be done in this area. Nonetheless, in the American Heart Association journal, Hypertension, an article revealed the higher prevalence of hypertension in Blacks living in the United States compared to those living in Africa. With all this said, let’s explore how racism affects the mental health of the Black community.

First, what is racism?

Racism is a noun that is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as follows: hostile attitude or behaviour to members of other races, based on a belief in the innate superiority of one’s own race.

One experience of racism is enough to last a lifetime. However, for many people in the Black community, it’s never just the one. Yet, some individuals don’t believe that it’s happening or choose to take the stance that it’s just an excuse to gain sympathy. But, if racism is not your lived experience, that does not negate its existence. If you find yourself having these reactions whenever racism is discussed, you must ask yourself: is it more comfortable to live in feelings of denial and superiority than to believe others’ experiences?

If you say you are not racist and want to make a difference, then you must listen without judgement and educate yourself. Open your eyes to what is happening to your brothers and sisters in humanity. Understand that it’s not always a “simple” social slight. Racial attacks can also be physical or verbal. They can happen on the street, place of work, or even within families where an interracial marriage exists.

5 ways racism affects mental health

Racism can impact the mental health of the Black community in several ways. The following paragraphs will explore the issues that are especially relatable to Black expats:

1- Social alienation

In 2018, an article in the journal Frontiers Public Health titled “Cultural Diversity and Mental Health: Considerations for Policy and Practice”, the author, Dr Narayan Gopalkrishnan, says that racism can lead to social alienation. He says that this is because individuals experiencing racism can begin to have a fear of public spaces, which can then lead to a loss of access to services.

Human beings are social animals by nature. The loss of connection, interaction, and loneliness adversely affect mental health. This lack of a support system or an outlet for thoughts and feelings, as a result, can lead to stress.

2- Hypertension

As explained above, dealing with racism is a form of stress. One of the causes of hypertension is lack of sleep or having disturbed sleep. Studies have shown that the Black communities in different parts of the world are at increased risk of this condition. It can be inferred from the previously mentioned study that this occurs when Blacks are in the minority in the population.

For example, as a Black expat or tourist, it’s not unheard of to experience unsolicited contact, from having strangers touch your hair or skin, to having your photos taken without your consent. Black expats on social media platforms often discuss this phenomenon. Sometimes, being Black can feel like you are an attraction in a human museum.

3- Psychosis

According to the organisation, Mental Health UK, Psychosis is the medical term used to describe someone hearing, seeing, or believing things that other people do not. It’s used to describe an experience rather than a mental illness.

Not everyone experiences psychosis the same way. Mental Health UK says that some people may even find it comforting. However, for others, the symptoms disrupt daily life and make them feel tired, scared, or overwhelmed, and that such symptoms can go unnoticed or undiagnosed. In the article titled “Prevalence of Psychosis in Black Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Analysis Based on Three National Surveys”, by Tarik Qassem et al., published in the Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology scientific journal, it says:  “Racist attacks and perceived employer racism are associated with increased rates of psychosis in Black ethnic minorities.”

4- Depression

Depression is a condition that can occur due to medical or psychological problems, or intense reactions to life events. The American Psychiatric Association says that individuals with depression may experience a range of symptoms, ranging from changes in their appetites and fatigue to suicidal thoughts. There are different types of depression, but here are some examples of how it can manifest in Black mothers and children:

  • According to some studies, Black mothers are more likely to experience postpartum depression. This may be explained by the fact that culture and/or circumstance (such as expat life or being in a population’s racial minority) can cause isolation and a lack of trust. All of this can result from social alienation.
  • Black children are not spared either, as they can experience racist bullying. According to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre website, racist bullying can occur in the following ways: racist remarks, threats, denying a student to play in a game, or damaging property. Harassment is more likely to happen in the hallways or classroom of schools. As a result, some teens who are bullied go on to develop depression.

5- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror. If a physical assault or aggressive verbalisation is part of a racist attack, PTSD can occur. Additionally, there is a school of thought that believes that racial trauma can also have epigenetic effects on people’s DNA and be passed down through generations. In fact, research findings by Dr Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the United States, point to this.

The Way Forward

So, what’s the way forward? Listen and learn. Respect the humanity and rights of the Black community. If you’re a family member or a friend to a person who’s experiencing racism, please encourage them to look after their mental health by talking about it and getting the help they need. They may require professional assistance, depending on the severity of their problems.

If you yourself are currently feeling anxious or depressed due to being exposed to racist events, have a social media detox. Make sure to also spend time with loved ones and find an outlet like art journaling or mediation. Finally, let’s also remember that we are all in this together—it takes all of us to make the world a kinder place.

Maria Tumolo is a Trinidad-born Surrey, England-based expat Blogger and Content Creator. She writes about family, lifestyle, and travel. The way to her heart is a Trini Chicken Dalpuri Roti. You can find Maria via her blog  thetigertales.co.uk or on Instagram and Twitter @MsXpat.