How does racism cause mental illness?


As we closed out the month of May, the DSM-5 was being released. The DSM-5 is mental health’s equivalent to the Bible. There has been a lot of discussion about addressing racism as a precursor to mental illness, more particularly to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recently, Dr. Monnica Williams wrote an article for Psychology Today on this very subject.

According to Dr. Williams, “Similar to rape victims, race-related trauma victims may respond with disbelief, shock or dissociation, which can prevent them from responding to the incident in a healthy manner. The victim may then feel shame and self-blame because they were unable to respond or defend themselves, which may lead to low self-concept and self-destructive behaviors.”

Dr. Francis Cress-Welsing is one of a few pioneers who provide evidence on the effects of racism (White Supremacy) on our health. As I have stated in previous articles, Black people are at the top of the list of everything bad and near the bottom of everything good.

Whether we are talking about homelessness, hypertension, AIDS/STDs, children in foster care systems, incarceration, etc., we are at or near to the top. Many studies have proven that systematic racism is a cause of and affects these social ills. Dr. Cress-Welsing often makes the statement, “Black people do not qualify for mental health.” Is she right?

The Black community continues to be in emotional pain. If I make reference to “The Struggle,” many of you know exactly what I am talking about. Life continues to be a struggle for us.

This gets to the point of Post Traumatic Stress. Yes indeed, some of our pain and stress comes from events from the past. However, what if the adversity does not stop? What if your traumatic stress is continuous?

Stress is defined as a constraining force or influence. Stress is a natural part of life. We all have stress. Everyone has multiple stressors. Unfortunately, for people classified as Black, this is a stressor in itself.

What make stress dangerous for our mental wellness are the methods used to deal with it. Our social situation is one that places great demands on our health. As a collective people, we are faced with great obstacles. Just breeze through the other articles in this newspaper: Racism (White Supremacy) is the core component for many of the topics. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is a problem for us.

Marvin Gaye sung about it in “What’s going on?” We often greet each other with it, asking, “What’s happening?” or “What’s up?” and “What’s good?”

Our answers to these questions are often vague. We reply with, “I’m straight” or “Not much” or “Just trying to keep my head above water.” Racism remains a daily factor of American culture. The daily hassle of being classified as Black in this society is one that is taxing on our mental and emotional state.

Think about the daily things you experience and about how racism plays a role in your lifestyle. Such things as the way you conduct yourself at work, the problems your children deal with at school, and the way you are treated in certain stores and restaurants are a part of the daily hassle. Because these small frustrations occur so regularly, they end up affecting us the most.

Daily causes of stress include social stressors, environmental stressors, relationship stressors and occupation stressors. Some examples of race-related traumatic stress are racial harassment, discrimination, witnessing ethno-violence (i.e., police brutality from a White officer) or discrimination against another person, historical or personal memories of racism, institutional racism, micro-aggressions, and the constant threat of racial discrimination.

One thing to remember is that racism is not as blatant as it has once been. Racism is much more refined today than it has ever been. However, if we are not equipped to understand this point, we began to internalize or bottle up the feelings that occur from this. When we do not address this in a healthy manner, it begins to take a toll on us mentally and often physically.

Racism also plays a significant role in how we understand ourselves. It affects how we feel and think about ourselves. This race-related stress grinds away at our mental health, causing emotional damage in addition to physical ailments.

Long-term race-related stress could even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to everyday pressures and less able to cope. This is what becomes dangerous, because it can lead us to have more serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI).

The traumatic stress that racism causes Black people is something that people are not always aware of. We have been in this adverse experience for so long that many of us have just adapted to the concept of “this is just the way it is.”

This is not true. We have the human right to have better lives than the ones we collectively have now.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to or follow him on twitter@UniversalJones.