Racism and Mental Illness in America
Ever since the colonization of Native American land and the forced physical labor of Africans, racism in the United States has continued to be one of the biggest unsolved issues. Parallel to this, mental health and its surrounding issues have been a topic of controversy for many years. However, no matter what era, there has been little public examination into the mental effects of racism on African-Americans. Whether experiencing microaggressions or blatant acts of discrimination, how has racism affected the mental health of African-Americans in the United States?
According to Social Psychology Quarterly, “Sociologists argue that the organization of social life, systems of oppression, and opportunity structures available to members of different status groups in the United States result in predictable patterns of risks and stressors.” (Perry, Brea L.). Nationally, African Americans face some of the highest rates of major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suicide, and post traumatic stress disorder (“NAMI.” NAMI,). In Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, he says “Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry?” (Bob Dylan, 9 July 1962). The ignorance of black people’s mental illnesses is unjust and promotes oppression.
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In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us that “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”(“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr].”). Keeping this in mind, it is of great importance that we make strides to relieve the mental pain and exhaustion caused by racism. In researching the effects of racism on mental health, it is found that: A segregated society, racially-charged experiences, and lack of trust causes a higher correlation of mental health problems among African Americans.
In May of 1896, after slavery had ended, the “infamous” Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruled that the “separate-but-equal” doctrine was legal and just (Rothman, Lily). However, this doctrine not only separated African Americans, but it also caused a ripple in their mental health. Dr. King himself referred to segregation as a “disease”, (Letter from a Birmingham Jail), and would agree that “To insist on separate education is to make equal education impossible.” (Beittel, A. D). In a survey completed by Max Deutscher and Isidor Chein, in surveying the psychological effects of segregation, it was found that there are “detrimental psychological effects on the segregated groups”.
The causes were found to be “the stresses created by the conflict between democratic schooling with its implication of equality,” as well as segregation “with its implication of inferiority” (144). Those surveyed were observed to have “distortion in the sense of reality” as well. As a consequence, it’s likely that many younger African-Americans were unable to develop a healthy racial identity.
It is likely that the black racial identity is negative based on society’s implications on their status and worth. While many had a sense of “shared activities”, they were confined to their legal privileges as black people. Similarly, Jewish men and women suffered similar consequences as a result of being confined to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. Professor of Political Science William Cox claims that “The Jews’ depression was caused by the Nazis’ prejudice”(427). Even today, these same psychological effects can be seen. The modern world is still heavily separated. Ghettos with heavy populations of African-Americans still exist, creating schools that also have the same populations (Office of the Surgeon General (US)).
In contrast, it is possible that these psychological sufferings on African-Americans is in fact not due to segregation. Many African-Americans youth are exposed to abuse, neglect, and suffer loss. They are also more likely to live in poverty, have lower incomes, attend “substandard” schools, and encounter unsafe experiences, which all could have a damaging effect on mental health (Office of the Surgeon General (US)“Chapter 3 Mental Health Care for African Americans.”). However, most of these issues are due to the intentional suppression of black people. In addition, issues like poverty can affect mental health as well. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are 3 times more likely to report psychological distress”(Huang, and Holiday-Moore). Prejudice caused the separation in the first place and is now having lasting effects on socioeconomic and prosperities, which all affect mental health.
The second reason racism has affected the mental health of African-Americans in America is heavily due to the racist experiences and how they affect the psyche of an average black person. Black women, face a unique prejudice that affects their mental wellbeing. African American women have the highest incidence of “medically treated suicide attempts”. This is mostly due to the fact that African American women face “gendered racism”, a term that encompasses both the prejudice of their race and sex. There are active stereotypes used to define black women, such as the idea that they are “dangerous, sexually promiscuous, and violent… ‘mammy figures’ – nurturing, servile, and passive”.
Not only do these stereotypes feed into self-esteem and emotional issues, they also make black women more susceptible to sexual violence, discrimination, and sexism. (Perry, Brea, 335). Negative media exposure is also correlated with mental health problems, in that it furthers the negative stereotypes about African American people.Though African-American do face a unique set of racially-charged discrimination, African-American men experience racism of the same, if not higher caliber. Historically, the African-American male has been repeatedly seen as ultimately inferior and treated as such. Even after slavery ended, Jim Crowism, as well as other segregation tactics, furthered the “active assault on the African American male’s physical and psychological integrity” (Utsey, 70).
The oppression faced by many black people today has taken a more modern form, but still has effects. Dr. King would agree that though legal segregation no longer exists, the presence of racism and prejudice create an unfair world for those of color. Police brutality, incarceration, hate crimes, and microaggressions are all experiences a person of color is likely to experience in their life. One of the biggest reasons this stimulus leads to mental health issues is the inability to cope.
According to Shawn Utsey, who studies psychology of the African American experience, African Americans are likely to cope with “resistance…accompanied by anger and possibly aggression” (72). These behaviors are seen very commonly in young African American teens and adults, which indicate a deeper emotional issue. That, and issues in the brain can occur when a person of color deals with a loss of life due to racism. That person, especially parents, are likely to blame themselves, which often leads to depression, anxiety, and so forth.
One of the biggest issues leading to lack of mental health education and resources is the stigma within the African American communities. Jason Schnittker suggests that “Regarding mental illness, the existing literature suggests that blacks are less likely than whites to endorse the professional treatment of mental health problems.” (1102) However, many parts of this stigma are fueled by past prejudices involving African Americans. “Blowin’ in the Wind” makes multiple references to ignorance to a fact and the idea that society does not take action until absolutely necessary (Dylan). According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “African Americans have been and continue to be negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in the health care system”. However, while many have the knowledge of this issue, very little has been done to incorporate African Americans into adequate treatment.
Dylan as well as Dr. King would agree that this ignorance only enhances the prejudice against people of color, and is unjust. However while much of the stigma is rooted in racial prejudice, religion and moral values are big factors. Clinical psychologist Monica Williams, PH.D., describes the African American community as not only having a distrust of medical establishments, but also a strong religious drive. Many African Americans would rather turn to their pastor, church, or God rather than a medical professional, and many even believe that the emotional turmoil they are experiences is a punishment from their God, or even their own fault (NAMI). Nonetheless, she explains that distrust in medical help “goes all the way back to historical abuses of slaves by White doctors for medical experimentation…”
Unfortunately, when examining solutions, we have to assume racism is a given, which is why offering solutions should pertain to the affect, which is the deprecation of African American mental health. In the two levels of the solution, which are Societal and Communal, everybody of every race holds a responsibility to helping end racism and uplifting the mental health of the African American community.
Racial identity develops during childhood, and society directly affects this. It is crucial to teach children at a young age about the history of racism, modern racism, and how to identify it. For white students, one way to teach them the psychological effects of racism is through the Blue Eyes and Brown Eyes Exercise. This exercise was created by Jane Elliot, in order to teach white students how prejudice feels due to a trait you cannot control, such as eye color. Exercises like these need to be integrated into social-emotional learning in schools in order to give young people an understanding of how racism works. African American students would also be provided with information about mental health resources outside of school, which they could bring back to their communities.
Within the African American community, as well as the surrounding medical community, a lot of work needs to be done. I propose a required study of African American mental health when attending medical school for those hoping to become psychologists or sociologists. Like with children, they’d have a deeper understanding of the differences in experience between white and black. Because it can often be so hard for therapists to “relate”, this would give them more tools to help the black individual, creating more trust. However, socioeconomic factors also often prevent medical treatment for black people, so even if they wanted to receive help, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to.
Figures such as Howard Stevenson, PH.D., are making strides in raising this awareness. According to Office of Minority Health, Stevenson is not only the director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative but is the developer and trainer of Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth (PLAAY), which aims to “address the impact of trauma and chronic stress on African American boys” (Huang & Holiday-Moore). Empowering people with programs like these, as well as media exposure, would greatly lift the stigma surrounding mental health, and thus empower them to do something about it. I would also propose that denominations of African American churches encourage the understanding of what it means to be mentally ill, or need professional help. This way, African Americans can be empowered to reach out for help, and still follow a spiritual journey with God.
The mental health issues affecting the African American community are obvious and, extremely pressing. Not only that, but not much is being done to support the community in emotional wellbeing. “Blowin’ in the Wind” asks how many times an issue can be ignored until it cannot anymore. “Letter to Birmingham Jail” references “do nothingism”, which Dr. King believes is unproductive and essentially slowing the process of equality. The increasing mental issues with black Americans simply cannot be ignored anymore. And thus, there are ways to not only bring these issues to fruition but start to increase the wellbeing of an average African American. By integrating topics of racism and mental health into schools and empowering the African American community with resources and education, the effects of racism will have a lesser impact on their mental health.