‘It’s a traumatic moment’: How everyday racism can impact mental, physical health
Being called a racial slur isn’t just hurtful when it happens – it can also have long-lasting health effects over time, say doctors.
“We all remember the first time. Whether it’s as a victim or as a witness,” said Uppala Chandrasekera, director of public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario.
“It’s a traumatic moment,” she said.
“We try to move on and we’re taught to rise above it. But it’s a deeply personal and deeply hurtful moment.”
People who experience a moment of racism “put it away in a box,” she said. The next time they experience something similar, they might not just react to that single comment, but to all the other ones they have already experienced throughout their lifetime.
“It may seem like that racialized person is having a very disproportionate reaction to those comments,” she said. “But that person is reacting to not just what happened today but that compounding impact of racism over their life.”
And that compounded experience can have a big effect on a person, according to Monnica Williams, associate professor at the University of Connecticut’s department of psychological sciences and psychiatry.
“We have research over the past 20 years that shows some pretty definitive links to just about every major mental illness and experiences of racism and discrimination,” she said.
“It’s a major stressor for people to be constantly existing in a society where they’re getting these constant messages that they’re not good enough,” and stress makes most mental conditions worse, she said.
Repeated traumatic interactions can result in reduced self-esteem and internalized hatred, according to a blog post by the American Psychiatric Association.
“You start to believe that if everybody else thinks I’m a little bit less than, maybe it’s true,” said Williams.
In her practice, Williams sees people come in with depression or in some cases symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of repeated racist interactions.
In the case of PTSD, “That’s because these events tend to be unpredictable so you never know when they’re going to happen so that makes people anxious and hypervigilant.”
And some people get depressed because they feel like they can’t keep trying to fight the system and just give up, she said.
Some people might also deal with stress by resorting to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, said Chandrasekera.
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Structural racism, which might make someone more likely to experience discrimination in the job market or live in a neighbourhood with few resources and a heavy police presence, can also be tied to negative health outcomes, she said.
The constant stress of racism has also been associated with physical health problems, like high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes, said Williams. “It’s been pretty consistent and strong, this link between racism and poor physical health as well as mental health.”
How to help
Both Williams and Chandrasekera believe that it’s important to seek counselling or therapy if you feel you need help coping.
“As an individual who has experienced racism, it’s really important for us as racialized people to unpack what’s happened and talk about it,” said Chandrasekera.
Although many therapists don’t have a lot of experience discussing these issues, help is becoming more available, she said.
Other people can help too, by simply acknowledging a racist act when they see it, she said. When something racist happens, the victim often doubts their own perception. “It leaves the person feeling very much isolated and alone because they think it’s going on in their head.”
“Naming it for the person is often the most important thing that we can do if we witness it.”
So if you see a racist act, even if you feel unsafe intervening in the moment, she suggests offering your support to the victim – saying that you saw what happened and asking if they’re OK. This way, the person doesn’t feel so isolated and alone, she said. And what’s more, it can help to change the system.
“Naming it is the first way to acknowledge that something’s happening. And then that can be used to establish policies and guidelines, for example in an institution or an organization.”
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She also stresses the importance of not thinking someone is overreacting to a single comment or joke.
“Really consider, how many times has that person heard that comment before in their life? And how many times have they experienced a similar incident? And that perhaps is what they’re reacting to – that compounding impact.”
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