Racism, Mental Health, and African Americans

Racism, Mental Health, and African Americans

“I can’t breathe!” is a phrase that’s become a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter and other movements.


In a literal sense, it illustrates how racism, injustice, and brutality have killed many African Americans. In a figurative sense, the phrase illustrates how these forces continue to harm the lives of African Americans in many ways.


Institutional and interpersonal racism shape so many interactions, it’s no wonder why African Americans need breathing room. Ongoing prejudice could damage mental health and contribute to other problems.

Why does racism cause stress?

Racism can be particularly harmful to people’s mental health because it’s an ongoing phenomenon. People might always worry that the police will stop them or a loved one. They might always wonder whether people will judge them based on how they look.


Or, they may be experiencing the lingering effects of racism. Unjust laws and practices have made it more difficult for African Americans to access education, careers, housing, health care, social opportunities, equality, freedom, and other components of the so-called American dream.


Every day, African Americans face prejudice that is obvious. They also face bias that is less apparent, but still present and still harmful.


Such factors are so pervasive that they can produce weathering. Weathering is a condition that can negatively affect people’s genes, leading to premature aging and several health problems. The term acknowledges that racism can weather or age people. It also addresses how people are forced to weather or withstand adversity.

What does stress do?

Injustice and racism definitely create adversity. Since they produce stress that biologically ages people, they can rob years from a person’s life.


Long-term stress can also weaken the immune system. Weaker immune systems could mean that people are less able to battle and recover from health problems.


During a disease pandemic, a strong immune system and good general health can mean the difference between life and death. In the United States, disproportionately large numbers of African Americans have contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus and have died from it.


Many of these African Americans had pre-existing health conditions that made them more physically vulnerable, lacked access to adequate medical care, or held essential jobs that placed them into contact with others.


Fears of catching the virus have weighed heavily on the minds of many African Americans during the pandemic. So have other related fears, such as worrying about how the virus will affect their jobs, their finances, their children’s educations, their relationships, and other aspects of their lives.


Not surprisingly, many African Americans have been stressed, depressed, and anxious. These conditions can cause additional problems that are mental, physical, or both.


Addiction is one of these problems. For example, African Americans might feel stressed and use alcohol or drugs because they want to get drunk or high. They might feel that those sensations are better than the stress, depression, or anxiety that drove them to use in the first place.


But the numbness or euphoria from drugs and alcohol only last so long. If people want to experience them again, they have to use more. And more.


Pretty soon, they may be using alcohol or drugs so often that they may become addicted and require drug or alcohol rehab treatment. The substances may produce problems with people’s health, relationships, and careers. And the reason why African Americans may have started using drugs and alcohol, the stress caused by racism, might still persist and continue to threaten their lives.

What are some barriers to assistance?

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for African Americans to find assistance.


Some members of the community think that mental illnesses are personal weaknesses. A 2010 study reported that older African Americans believed that people with depression were weak and lacked inner strength. Other articles have noted similar attitudes among some African Americans.


Even when African Americans are willing to seek treatment, they may not be able to access it. They may live far from treatment providers or lack the transportation to visit them.


Finances could also prevent people from obtaining much-needed medical services. Even if they have health insurance, African Americans might have trouble paying for copayments (copays), services, or supplies that aren’t covered. People may not have devices such as computers or smartphones that allow them to use telehealth tools to treat or even research their conditions.


Representation is another barrier. Sometimes, people find it more comfortable to seek help from people more like them, people who have had similar experiences, or people who understand what they’ve been facing. If people can’t find a therapist who is sensitive to their concerns, it could make their problems worse.

How can African Americans find help?

Finding effective mental health assistance may be more challenging for African Americans, but it’s possible.


When searching for health care providers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests that African Americans ask specific questions:


  • “Have you treated other African Americans?
  • Have you received training in cultural competence or African American mental health?
  • ​​How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?”


By asking these questions, people can determine if their potential providers have the experience, training, and communication skills to treat them with skill and compassion.


To find information and assistance, people may want to consider visiting the website of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This site provides information and resources about African Americans, mental health, and addiction.


It lists phone numbers and internet pages that people can visit if they’re looking to help themselves or their loved ones.


SAMHSA also offers a tool it calls the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator. By using this tool, people can find providers to treat mental illness or addiction. People can narrow their searches by including the clients’ treatment preferences, insurance coverage, and other parameters.


Recent protests have shown that there are many people willing to fight racism and end it. The same is true for mental illnesses. There is assistance that can help African Americans address mental health challenges and overcome them.

behrend.psu.edu – Defining the Dream (The Institute on the American Dream)
self.com – Biological Weathering and Its Deadly Effect on Black Mothers
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function
healthline.com – Why the African American Community Is Being Hit Hard by COVID-19
publichealth.umich.edu – Surviving the Coronavirus While Black: Pandemic’s Heavy Toll on African American Mental Health
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – Inpatient Alcohol Rehab | Alcohol Rehab Facilities
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – African American Men and Women’s Attitude Toward Mental Illness, Perceptions of Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors
kpbs.org – Science Suggests Systemic Racism Causes Stress, Increases Disease Within Black, Brown Communities
nami.org – Black/African American
findtreatment.gov – FindTreatment.gov

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