How Does Racism Impact the Mental and Physical Health of African Americans?

Written by: Charles Smith, M.S.
How Does Racism Impact the Mental and Physical Health of African Americans?

I recently received a referral involving an African American mother and her 20-year-old son with mental health issues. The mother expressed her preference for an African American male therapist, which she thought would be in the best interest of her African American son. The mother explained that her son had a severe emotional episode at their home. With limited options, she called the police requesting emergency mental health assistance for her son. When the police arrived, there was no mental health support or consideration for her son’s condition. Instead of receiving an appropriate mental health response, her son was jailed for two weeks*. After hearing the story, I asked myself if this was another example of how racism intersects with mental health care for African Americans.

This blog examines the negative impact of racism and its harmful and long-lasting effects on one’s well-being. Racism continues to be a pervasive problem that can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. Racism produces feelings of powerlessness, which causes stress and anxiety. Over time, the constant exposure of racism in the media can lead to depression, as members of the African American community become hopeless and defenseless against discrimination. It is also important to note that severe acts of experienced racism can be traumatic, particularly, when feelings of helplessness, fear and horror are involved. It is widely believed this can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or post traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS), a term made popular by Dr. Joy Angela DeGruy who is the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Racism has also been linked to low self-esteem and self-worth. When experiencing racism, one may internalize negative stereotypes and believe myths about their race, leading to feelings of shame and inferiority complexes.

Furthermore, one’s physical health can be negatively impacted by racism. Research has shown that individuals who experience racism are at a higher risk of developing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic health conditions. This can lead to an increased negative impact on one’s overall mental health, as they may feel physically and mentally unable to cope with the stressors of racism.

According to the CDC, “A growing body of research shows that centuries of racism in this country has had a profound and negative impact on communities of color placing those within these populations at greater risk for diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease poor health outcomes when compared to their White counterparts.” (Linked here.)

Racism can also hinder the development of an individual’s social functioning and emotional well-being. Racism can cause social isolation and alienation. Some targets of racism may feel unsafe or like they do not belong in certain spaces and/or communities. This can lead to loneliness causing other mental health problems.

In conclusion, racism has a significant negative impact on an individual’s mental health and well-being. As practitioners, mental health stakeholders, and members of society, it is critically important to understand the impacts of racism on mental health and strive towards building a more just and inclusive society for all individuals.

*Please note that details have been changed to protect identities.