How Black Americans are struggling to find their identity amidst a racist society. The reality remains; as bad as the mental health crisis already is in the US, it is significantly worse for Black Americans.

The dynamic of the ‘normal’ standard of living in the US has shifted to a far more consumption driven, temporary model, bringing along a plethora of social problems. One of the larger being, the surge of mental illness. As a whole, the modern, western lifestyle highlights arguably the most unfavorable aspects of ordinary life. Normalizing unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyles, broken families, competition in schools/workplaces and frequent racism and discrimination agains primarily Black Americans, all further undermine the already crippling mental health infrastructure in this country.

The facts on the mental health crisis

It’s no secret, collectively this nation’s mental health is getting worse. Excluding race from the conversation, over 45 million Americans (20%) of this country are experiencing some sort of mental illness.  Out of which, 10.3 million adults have suicidal thoughts, and 57% receive no treatment whatsoever. However, communities of color (specifically Black Americans) experience worsened challenges regarding mental illness as well as greater barriers to accessible treatment. 

Here is some perspective:

  • 13.4% of the US population is identified as Black or African American out of which 16% (7 million people) report having a mental illness
  • Adult Black Americans are 20% more likely to claim serious psychological distress over White adults
  • Black Americans living in poverty are 3x more likely to claim psychological distress
  • Black/African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than White teenagers 

Although genetics, biochemical, and/or hormonal imbalances are the clinical influencers to mental illness diagnosis’, the environment can absolutely either fosture or curb identification. Unlike genetic or biochemical factors, flexible environmental risk factors (like smoking, substance abuse, lack of sleep, poverty, economics, obesity, childhood trauma) can be addressed and treated as such. It is the “modifiable environmental risk factors that convert risk into illness.”

Mental health crisis specific to Black Americans

Racism can be present in many forms, including structural (through rules/regulations), institutional/systematic (criminal justice, voter suppression, housing, employment, healthcare) or as interpersonal (on an individual scale). Interpersonal racism is normally in more socialized settings, for example it can be in the form of microaggressions, prejudicial statements or harassment. Historically, years of slavery, segregation in education, employment and housing has disguised itself into socioeconomic inequality. I.e, there is a direct link between socioeconomic status and the mental health of Black Americans. Over 50% of Blacks in the US live in the South, and are more likely to be either impoverished, poor, or have substance/alcohol abuse problems. All factors, putting them lower on the socioeconomic spectrum and higher on the likelihood of developing mental illness. 

Racism (whether institutional or interpersonal), is not only one possible explanation of the indisputable disparities regarding mental illness among Black Americans, but also is a reason why discrimination as a whole is normalizing as well. In other words, mental health is worsening among Black Americans because of racism. And racism (and social discrimination) is worsening because of the weakening mental health infrastructure. The evidence based body of knowledge that identifies racism leading to mental illness, social anxiety, OCD, panic disorders and/or depression is only growing.

Racism’s direct link to stress/anxiety

A 2017 research publication identifies the specific ways in which racism adversely impacts stress and anxiety. In turn, contributing to mental illness among Black Americans. 

The first being the principle of uncertainty, or the lack of control in discriminatory situations. Meaning, the uncertainty in racist incidents (whether interpersonal or systematic) contributes to stress and anxiety. Oftentimes Black Americans may feel the need to ‘work harder’ in work/schools to satisfy societal expectations. However even in those cases, external environmental factors are uncontrollable. Recurring racist experiences creates a cycle of consistently having to legitimize hard work at the expense of being undervalued. This notion is referred to as invisibility syndrome. That because of the uncontrollable (and often racist) environments, Black Americans skill, knowledge and talents are not entirely acknowledged in society. The discriminatory interpersonal incidents along with the fundamentally ‘racist’ justice system reinforces the notion that hard work and determination simply does not apply to Black Americans. 

The second principle that explains the link between racism and stress/anxiety is that of internalization or negative self evaluation. Meaning Black individuals may oftentimes ‘internalize’ or accept negative beliefs about themselves. For example, consistently hearing one particular type of hair or shade of skin color are superior to others. The research regarding critical self beliefs are directly associated with developing stress/anxiety. 

The third and final principle is that of avoidance of meaningful actions. Meaning that continuous suppression of negative emotions and (racist) experiences leads to poor long term mental health implications. Focusing solely on dismissing negative emotions takes significance away from positive emotions. For example, a Black individual who experiences ‘everyday racism’ (social anxiety), will avoid those places on a regular basis. However, that avoidance will affect his/her ability to socialize, make friends etc. 

Racial battle fatigue: a public health crisis

University of Utah researcher William Smith originated the term ‘racial battle fatigue’ in his early 2000 publication. His paper described Black (African descent) students “constantly worry, have trouble concentrating, become fatigued, and develop headaches when navigating personal and professional spaces that have historically favored white people.” Symptoms include headaches, body aches, elevated blood pressure, and constant worry.

Racial battle fatigue is the bridge between everyday racism and serious mental illness among Black individuals that affects generations. Racial disparities among infant mortality rates are widening, primarily because of maternal stress of mothers in low income areas. In working environments, Black individuals struggle in maneuvering through the corporate culture dominated by White males in positions of power. 

The current administration, consistently pushing an ‘anti-immigrant/anti-people of color’ agenda, has further normalized everyday racism at the interpersonal (social) level in this country. A 2018 collaborative study reveals racism, as an additional stressor, in the form of microaggressions, prejudice conversations and casual slights “can result in pessimism, and difficulties adjusting and recovering from trauma.” There is repeated evidence that suggests individuals are at higher risk of developing depression, psychosis, substance abuse and misplaced anger after being exposed to racism.

Low socioeconomic status means little access to mental health services, leaving primarily Black individuals to alleviate pain via substance abuse. Liquor/Tobacco stores often times outnumber social services, by virtue of systematic discrimination in housing, employment, economic opportunity and education. Again, leaving Black individuals stuck in a man made cycle. Consumption of harmful substances (drugs/alcohol) in addition regular racism, leaves Black individuals unable to live fulfilling lives.

In 2020, as socialized racism continues to normalize, the long term mental health implications will only become more noticeable.

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