Racial Trauma and Mental Health

Centuries of racial oppression, suppression, and violence have embedded racism into our institutions and community interactions. The detrimental impact of covert and overt racism extends beyond physical health and causes sustained and complex trauma. Whether through racial profiling, microaggressions, discrimination, witnessing racial violence against others or other forms of institutional or structural racism, the resulting racial trauma has a direct impact on mental health and wellbeing. 

Racial discrimination has been consistently linked to physical and mental health outcomes. Sustained exposure to any form of racism has been linked to chronic stress, which in turn can create subsequent mental health challenges. According to findings by the American Academy of Pediatrics, racism has been linked to birth disparities and mental health problems in children and adolescents.The biological mechanism that emerges from chronic stress leads to increased and prolonged levels of exposure to stress hormones and oxidative stress at the cellular level. As such, the association between discrimination and mental health has been found to be stronger than for physical health. 

As a social determinant of health, racial trauma has a direct impact on child and adolescent development. When we experience trauma from a young age, it increases the risk of a wide array of negative health outcomes, such as chronic physical and mental health conditions. Defined as “adverse childhood experiences” or “ACEs”, Black youth have greater exposure rates to traumatic events. In addition, studies have shown decreased psychological, behavioral and emotional functioning among this group of traumatized youth. 

Systemic and institutional racism perpetuates racial inequities in healthcare for non-dominant racial groups, including Black, American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN), Asian, and LatinX populations. Approximately 50% to 75% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness and Black people are disproportionately overrepresented in these systems (making up 13% of the U.S. population, but nearly 40% of the prison population.) AI/AN populations experience the highest rates of death by suicide of any demographic (having increased by 20% between 2015 and 2020) and report higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than any other ethic or racial group. 

Furthermore, data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that Asian people were 60% less likely to have received mental health treatment as compared to non-Hispanic white people and a study found that 70% of Southeast Asian refugees who had received mental health care were diagnosed with PTSD associated with immigration-related trauma. Perceived discrimination has been linked to symptoms of depression in Latin American and Caribbean immigrants and in adults of Mexican origin. However, only 35% of Hispanic/Latinx adults with mental illness receive treatment each year compared to the U.S. average of 46%, and just 4% of therapists can provide services in Spanish.

Despite efforts to improve mental health services for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, barriers remain regarding access to quality healthcare. These barriers include stigma associated with accessing mental health treatment, lack of trust in the health systems, lack of culturally competent and racially representative providers, and lack of sufficient insurance. In order to create a more equitable society, we must acknowledge the impact of racial trauma on mental health and wellbeing, and strive to improve access to mental health resources particularly for children and young adults. 

Crisis Text Line provides free, anonymous and non-judgmental mental health support in English and Spanish. Those experiencing emotional distress or mental health challenges can connect with us via text, web chat and WhatsApp. Please text HELLO to 741741 or 443-SUPPORT in WhatsApp to be connected to a live, trained volunteer Crisis Counselor or text HOLA to 741741 or 442-AYUDAME in WhatsApp for our Spanish service.

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