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How Racism Colors Mental Health

Our mental health is often affected by our experiences. How does racism, in our communities and on college campuses, shade our experiences and our minds?

On June 17, 2015, nine African-American individuals were killed by a white man in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He stated his motive was “to shoot black people.” The congregants were specifically targeted for their race and this tragedy is not an isolated event. Many minority groups are negatively targeted for their race and experience prejudice, disrespect, and violence. While most people experience some mental health consequences after a mass shooting, because of the racist overtones of this event and the many like it, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are increasing in minorities.

In general, findings support the theory that perceptions of racism are positively associated with psychological distress and inversely associated with psychological health. More importantly, the longer the individual is exposed to racism, the more likely they are to report mental distress. This means individuals may not seek help for their psychological problems due to race-related stress until it becomes unbearable. What seems like a small incident may trigger an enormous stress reaction because of the cumulative nature of racism (Okazaki, 2009).


Campus mental health services importance

For Black Americans, one of the most commonly reported experiences tied to poor mental health is racism (Pieterse, Todd, Neville, & Carter, 2012). That doesn't bode well with the particularly troubling challenges Black Americans face today.

Young college students are particularly high risk as well(Hwang & Goto, 2008). Asian American and Latino American students have been found to have increased levels of anxiety when experiencing racism and particularly when recalling past experiences of racism.

For college students, campus mental health services play an important role as many students report feeling stereotyped and experiencing biased treatment by professors, staff, and other students. But college mental health services are notoriously lacking; which begs the question, can we help students cope with the inherent racism they face on campus and in the world? Is it possible to encourage all people to seek help before mental distress becomes mental illness?

Various coping skills are used when it comes to being involved with race-fueled problems. But not all coping mechanisms are created equal; so it is imperative to recognize which coping skills work best and strike a balance between staying healthy and staying safe. Avoidant coping skills are found to be disadvantageous to one’s mental well-being, but can protect victims of racism from perpetrators “leveling up” as reaction to negative feedback. Antagonizing a person displaying violently racist behaviors can quickly become dangerous for the target and those around them.


We need to take the racism problem very serious

But avoiding every perpetrator or attempting to ignore any racism can lead to suppressed anger, fear, rumination, and guilt (Forsyth & Carter, 2012). Spiritual coping is typically associated with lower psychological distress, but should be supplemented with more direct and active approaches to address the race-related incident when it’s safe to do so. Those who take an active stance against racism fare far better psychologically than those who accept unfair treatment (Kwate & Goodman, 2015). These direct approaches to racism not only aid individuals who experience racism in preventing more serious psychological problems in the future, but hopefully diminish the acts of racism altogether.

Another important factor in diminishing the effects of racism is community support. No matter how racism affects your life, take a stance against offenders that perpetuate the cycle of racism. Keeping quiet and accepting this unjust treatment can have toxic ramifications later in life for individuals and communities. We may not be able to end racism right away, but we can certainly learn to utilize direct coping skills to positively benefit our mental health and help decrease racism in today’s society.



Forsyth, J., & Carter, R. T. (2012). The relationship between racial identity status attitudes, racism-related coping, and mental health among Black Americans. Cultural Diversity And Ethnic Minority Psychology18(2), 128-140. doi:10.1037/a0027660

Hwang, W., & Goto, S. (2008). The impact of perceived racial discrimination on the mental health of Asian American and Latino college students. Cultural Diversity And Ethnic Minority Psychology14(4), 326-335. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.14.4.326

Kwate, N. A., & Goodman, M. S. (2015). Cross-sectional and longitudinal effects of racism on mental health among residents of Black neighborhoods in New York City. American Journal Of Public Health105(4), 711-718. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302243

Miller, M. J., Yang, M., Farrell, J. A., & Lin, L. (2011). Racial and cultural factors affecting the mental health of Asian Americans. American Journal Of Orthopsychiatry81(4), 489-497. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2011.01118.x

Okazaki, S. (2009). Impact of racism on ethnic minority mental health. Perspectives On Psychological Science4(1), 103-107. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01099.x

Pieterse, A. L., Todd, N. R., Neville, H. A., & Carter, R. T. (2012). Perceived racism and mental health among Black American adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal Of Counseling Psychology59(1), 1-9. doi:10.1037/a0026208

Additional edits by Daniayla Stein

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