How Racism Affects Your Mental Health

Discrimination can take a serious toll on your mental health. Look out for these symptoms.

Decades after Martin Luther King, Jr. fought and died for racial equality in America, racism is still very much alive. People continue to protest the same injustices that MLK, Jr. dedicated his life to. Most recently, those injustices include the horrific deaths of, among so many others, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed by a white police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes, even after Floyd pleaded for air; Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man who was shot to death while jogging after two white men followed him in a truck; and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman who was fatally shot by police officers while in bed in her own home.

It's not just gut-wrenching to witness these events and absorb their implications as they unfold; it can have heavy, long-term effects on mental health, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

"The deaths of innocent black people targeted specifically because of their race—often by police officers—are both deeply shocking and shockingly routine," Sandra L. Shullman, Ph.D., president of the APA, said in a statement. The mental health consequences of these high-profile violent events are "dire," continued Shullman. "Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and other physical diseases."

Science backs this up, too: In 2016, researchers from Manchester University in the UK specifically looked at how repeated and systemic racism over time could impact your mental health. Using data from Understanding Society, a tool designed to help researchers gather statistics and answers from study participants over time, the scientists examined feedback from ethnic minorities in the UK. This included their experiences being shouted at, being physically attacked, avoiding a place, and feeling unsafe because of their ethnicity.

In the findings published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers concluded that continued racism has very real mental health effects. They found that minorities who had experienced repeated incidents of racial discrimination were significantly more likely to have mental health problems such as depression and anxiety than minorities who hadn't faced the same repeated incidents. Feeling unsafe and avoiding certain spaces or situations because of ethnicity had the biggest negative impact on mental health.

What's more, Laia Bécares, Ph.D., one of the study authors, went on to say in a press release that even "awareness of racial discrimination experienced by others can continue to affect the mental health of ethnic minority people." So, if you constantly see discrimination on the news—whether it's yet another unjust killing of a black person, or a video of a white woman calling the police with blatantly false accusations against an African American man—you could be impacted secondhand.

Previous research has shown that persistent anxiety can cause very real physical symptoms like muscle pain, fatigue, headaches, and insomnia. See your doctor if you're experiencing increased anxiety or symptoms of depression.

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