Racism and Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 27, 2024
4 min read

Discrimination based on race or skin color can create a whole host of problems, like chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and racial trauma, which can affect your day-to-day quality of life.

Acts of racism can vary widely. They usually fall into one of two main categories:

Micro-level racism is what you experience personally on a daily basis in public or at work, or watch others go through. It can range from obvious physical and verbal confrontation to more subtle acts directed toward minorities. This could include things like mistreatment, disrespect, or off-handed racist “jokes.”

Macro-level or systemic racism is what you experience through laws, regulation, and policies. It includes the types of stories told in the media about people of color, as well as rules that govern institutions like the justice system, health care, education system, or financial system.

Both micro-levels and macro-levels of racism and discrimination can chip away at your self-confidence. They can make you question your identity and make you afraid to do everyday tasks. Over time, they can lead to emotional effects such as:

  • Sad, depressed, or suicidal thoughts
  • Anxiety, feeling you must stay on guard against future incidents
  • Lower self-worth. You believe the negative messages about yourself and people who look like you in your community. This is called internalized racism.
  • Negative outlook and hopelessness about the possibility of change in your daily quality of life
  • Distress and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms (PTSD)
  • Anger
  • Exhaustion, such as lack of energy to plan or think

Whether it’s subtle everyday discrimination or constant news about violence against people of color over time, the insulting and dehumanizing effects of racism can add up to what experts call racial trauma.

The intensity of racial trauma can vary from person to person. In some cases, the symptoms can look a lot like PTSD. It may cause you to revisit distressing events in your head constantly and affect your overall well-being.

Symptoms of racial trauma include:

  • Increased alertness and avoidance of perceived threats
  • Chronic stress
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • Substance abuse
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Avoiding interactions with people
  • Avoiding new opportunities or taking risks

If you don’t treat the symptoms, racial trauma can bleed into daily life and affect your ability to function properly, concentrate at work, and maintain relationships with your family and friends.

Dealing with racist behavior regularly, be it subtle or upfront, can definitely shake your mental well-being. It also causes your body to release stress hormones that put you in a heightened, alert state. This can result in physical problems that lead to illness such as:

  • Inflammation
  • High cortisol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Decreased immune function

A recent University of California Los Angeles-led study found that facing discrimination as a young adult makes you more likely to develop short and long-term mental and behavioral problems. The researchers looked at decades of health information for more than 1,800 Americans between 18 and 28 who cited race as a common factor for discrimination.

The study also found that those who encountered frequent discrimination, meaning a few times per month or more, were about 25% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. They were also twice as likely to develop severe psychological distress over time.

In fact, as a person of color, you’re far more likely to be exposed to negative socioeconomic factors such as poverty, unemployment, incarceration, or abuse. According to research, Black adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults.

Moreover, research also shows that native and indigenous American adults have the highest reported rate of mental illnesses of any single race identifying group.

While you may not to be able to change how people treat you, curb racist behavior within society, or battle systemic racism in the near future, there are things you can do to improve your mood and take better care of your emotional and physical health.

Talk about your experiences. Finding a safe space to share what you’ve been through can bring about relief. It can also lower your risk for mental health issues.

Name your emotions. Racism can often leave you feeling insulted, belittled, or disconnected. No matter what you’re feeling, giving the emotion a label can be empowering and allow you to work through it in a constructive way.

Locate and identify what triggers you. Try to narrow down on the person, place, or situation that affects your mental health. This can ease anxiety and help you process trauma.

Find a role model or mentor. Connect with someone who inspires and motivates you. This can give your self-worth a boost.

Take a break from triggers. Racial discrimination incidents can may stir up heightened emotions. Over time, it can wear you down. Take a break from anything or anyone who may trigger those feelings.

Connect with others who have similar experiences. Peer support and a sense of connection with friends, family, or a support group can be a powerful and effective way to overcome or manage mental health issues.

Join organizations that fight racism and create positive change. Racism is a deep-rooted problem, and though change isn’t possible overnight, joining an organized group that seeks to change laws and regulations to protect you, your community, and other vulnerable minority groups can be empowering. It can also give you a sense of control and help you find your voice, which can boost your self-worth.

Get professional mental health help. If you’re struggling with mental health issues because of racism you experienced personally or systemically, and it’s affecting your daily life, seek professional medical help. Your doctor, psychologist, or a counselor can guide you in the right direction. You may need to take prescription medication to get your mental health under control.