February: Black History Month

February: Black History Month and the Effects of Racial Discrimination on Mental Health

In honour of Black History Month, we would like to take the opportunity to discuss the impact of discrimination on mental health. Discrimination can happen anywhere – whether it be at work, at school, on the train and even at home. It can happen outside, online, between strangers or friends and within our political system. It is important to acknowledge, recognize, and discuss the impact of discrimination in general and its impact on mental health.  

But first, let’s talk about the different kinds of discrimination and the ways in which they can manifest.

  • Prejudice and Overt Bias: These are the people who believe that one group is superior to others and will openly express it.
  • Stereotyping Discrimination: Stereotyping is making a judgment about someone because of their race, colour, or ethnicity. Racial profiling is a common type of stereotyping, including police profiling, assuming someone behaves a certain way, has a certain level of education or employment, and even what type of food and music a person is expected to enjoy based on a stereotype of their race, colour, or cultural background.
  • Subtle Forms of Racial Inequity: These tend to be more covert and are just as damaging. This could be turning someone away from a loan or lease, excessive supervision at a store, or over-correcting an employee.
As you could imagine, being discriminated against has a negative impact on a person’s mental health. In fact, studies have shown that people of colour and people of culture living in a white bodied cultural majority are more likely to suffer from the following mental health problems;
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance Use Disorders
  • Suicidal Thoughts
In addition, studies have shown that people of colour and people of culture are less likely to seek treatment for mental health symptoms (partly due to stigma and mistrust of the medical system). This causes additional problem of what is called “racial trauma”, which symptoms can include:
  • Increased alertness and avoidance of perceived threats
  • Chronic stress
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • Substance abuse
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Avoiding interactions with people
  • Avoiding new opportunities or taking risks
To make matters worse, it seems our mental health systems tends to disproportionately over or under diagnose black bodied and Indigenous peoples According to the Human Rights Commission of Ontario, “In some instances, this leads to a deferred intervention or [where] help-seeking is delayed for unnecessarily long periods. For example, culturally inappropriate instruments used by clinicians at intake and exceedingly high rates of diagnosis for schizophrenia for members of racialized communities are fairly common issues identified by anti-racism mental health advocates.”
Of course, there are other significantly negative impacts of racial inequity including (but not limited to);
  • Physiological health: Studies have shown that racial discrimination can lead to increased rates of inflammation, higher cortisol levels, higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, decreased immune function, etc.
  • Socioeconomic disparity: this would include living in financially insecure communities, less access to education, higher likelihood of living in a “food desert” (which ties into the physiological impact).
  • Work opportunity inequality: you can read about this 2018 Harvard study.
  • Judicial inequality: For example, in 2018 (New York City) 88% of the police stops made by the NYPD were Black bodied Americans.

It is clear that discrimination has many negative impacts on mental health. As a mental health community, our goal is to work towards not only reducing and resolving symptoms of mental health struggles, but also to work towards a collective and community healing, together. This short blog post is meant to shine a light on the important issue of mental health struggles by those who are discriminated against, oppressed, and who’s voices are not heard. There is more work to do, more to learn, and more to heal. Join us in being part of the conversation.  

All the best,

Émilie Rose Casey