How Racism, Trauma And Mental Health Are Linked

Research shows African-Americans are less likely to access treatment for mental illness.

Cultural norms and the stigma associated with having a mental illness are partly to blame, according to Shardé Smith, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Smith studies the role that race-related stress and trauma has on entire families, and what strategies people use to cope.

She spoke recently with Side Effects Public Media about the barriers to mental health treatment for African-Americans and the relationship between racism, trauma and mental illness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the barriers that prevent African-Americans from seeking help for a mental illness?

Mistrust of the therapeutic system stems from events like the Tuskegee experiment and other systemic injustices where African-Americans were treated unfairly. There’s also shame and negative beliefs about mental health care, and the assumption that an individual or community failed in some way, which led to these issues. And for those who are part of a religious community, sometimes mental illness is seen as not having enough faith in God.

What is the role of systemic racism in all this?

Systemic racism is the institutionalization of racism through policies and practices that show up in all of our systems. And it’s through systemic racism that mental health issues arise and are maintained.

For example, living in an impoverished community with less access to proper food and nutrition can be very stressful and can create mental health problems among individual family members. Another example could be the funneling of black youth through the justice system, where they’re more likely to either go to jail or be a part of the system than to receive proper mental health care.

There are also inequalities in our education system that can create gaps in wealth. This can lead to mental health problems, and systemic racism also means there’s a lack of access to proper mental health care, cultural biases from health providers, misdiagnoses such as attributing certain behaviors to delinquency as opposed to survival coping strategies for the trauma people have faced.

What role does trauma play?

Trauma plays a huge role. The disparities that we see cause trauma, and a lot of times that trauma goes unaddressed, and it’s not named as such. So it’s difficult finding treatment for the trauma because we don’t have a name for it.

What are some examples of trauma?

Race-related trauma could include the traumatic experiences, emotionally, psychologically, physically that manifest as the result of experiencing one or multiple events. Sometimes we think of traumas, such as natural disasters, sexual trauma, or car accidents, which are traumatic events. But sometimes we don’t think about race-related trauma as a part of that, and it’s important to include that in our understanding of trauma and how it can effect marginalized communities and African-Americans.

To loosely quote Kimberlé Crenshaw, if there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem. And if you can’t see a problem you can’t solve it. And sometimes we don’t name these traumas as racial traumas that black and African-Americans are experiencing.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

A white mother on her black son: He’s treated differently

My Op-ed published by The Charlotte Observer

My biracial son Amias and his white cousin Jacob – middle school honors students – stood a few paces apart at a local shoe store . Clutching my debit card, Amias glanced at a Nike price tag as a store clerk approached. “You can’t be in here without a parent,” he said. Apologetically placing the shoe back on the display, Amias jogged to the exit then sat on a bench waiting while Jacob continued to browse uninterrupted.

When Amias asked why he was treated differently than his cousin, overt racism was an easy, but insufficient, answer. The clerk probably didn’t attend neo-Nazi rallies on his days off It probably wasn’t intentional at all. Instead he likely acted on an unconscious gut reaction. This type of implicit bias, the unconscious prejudice that underlies our actions, is tricky because it’s often subtle and ambiguous. Some argue it doesn’t exist. As the white mother of a black son, I assure you it does.

The compounding effect of implicit bias sets Amias’ future on an entirely different trajectory than that of his white cousin. According to a new study, Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States, even though Amias and Jacob started life on the same rung, Jacob has upward mobility while Amias is far more likely to fall down the ladder than climb up it.  Read more here.

Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys – The New York Times

Amazing study that shows kids who live on the same block–grow up in the same social class and schools–do not have the same upward mobility. Black boys are significantly more likely to drop to lower income brackets.

My biracial son is one of the boys represented by the little blue blocks. He’s far more likely to fall down the income ladder than go up.

Amazing graphics on this article.

via Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys – The New York Times