The Psychological Consequences of Racism

How Minorities Stay Healthy when Faced with Discrimination

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who admitted to killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in early 2012, has stirred up a lot of emotions around the nation regarding issues of race, the power of perceptions, and the value of human life. Earlier this month, UCSC students took to the streets in a show of solidarity to protest what many considered a grave injustice. Even President Obama has weighed in to address the profound psychological impact of this case, especially among Black Americans. It has been argued that racism strongly influenced both the targeting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Since July is Minority Mental Health Month, I would like to acknowledge the impact that experiences of racism have on the mental health of people of color.

There is a growing body of research connecting experiences of racial discrimination with mental health problems. In one recent study that looked across the three most common U.S. ethnic minority groups (Asian American, Hispanic American, and African American), racial discrimination was associated with increased experiences of depression, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. This was true regardless of the social class, age, or gender of those surveyed. In another study, it was found that even experiences of discrimination that aren’t deemed particularly stressful add up to cause significant psychological problems over time since they tend to happen so frequently. For college students in particular, research conducted in 2009 found that feeling racially discriminated against was associated with increased suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression. And even more recently, research has highlighted the ways that being discriminated against for more than one reason (for instance, for being both Black AND gay) is linked to higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse for people ages 14 to 19.

So, how can minorities protect their mental health from the impact of racism? Like with most stressors, getting social support and using healthy personal coping skills are essential. In addition, for many people affected by racism and other forms of discrimination, activism is a healthy way to prevent the impact in the first place by addressing social realities that cause distress. Perhaps the thousands of people who have participated in rallies, protests, and marches in honor of Trayvon Martin feel less demoralized, and more empowered by these types of activities. Clinical psychologist Bruce Levine argues that directly confronting perceived injustice provides people with hope and prevents a sense of learned helplessness. Thus, engaging in social change work may be the most constructive way to challenge societal ills that threaten the physical and emotional well-being of minority communities. What do you think?

Laura Turner-Essel, MA, is a doctoral intern at Counseling and Psychological Services.