Systemic and institutional racism exists in all aspects of life and impacts Black, Indigenous, and people of color's access to housing, healthcare, job opportunities, food security, wealth, mental health, and overall well-being. The racial unrest in 2020 illuminated these issues for all of society to see, whether or not people were ready to reckon with the true history of a country stolen from Indigenous people and built on the backs of Black people.
"When we're talking about racism, we really have to name, label the way in which systemic oppression shows up in this. We're not just talking about the individual experiences of racism and white supremacy, we're talking about it as a full system that has continuously perpetrated harm and violence against folks of color," Kenya Crawford, MA, EdM, LMHC, an antiracist facilitator and counselor and cofounder of On The Mend, told POPSUGAR.
Existing in a society that devalues certain lives based on America's racial hierarchy is draining and negatively impacts the mental health of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. "There are all these rules in our society that's set up about race and about talking about race. And there are all these rules that are set up to make certain people feel comfortable, i.e., mostly white individuals," Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW, associate professor in the school of social work at the University of Central Florida, told POPSUGAR.
"With that, these rules and these unwritten rules are set up in such a way that folks of color, and most particularly Black individuals, are policed, for lack of a better word, in such a way that everything that we do is political. Everything that we do has meaning even if we're trying to be unassuming."
Dr. Chapple explained that this policing — whether it be at school, at work, or simply walking down the street — results in most people of color being hypervigilant a majority of the time. "And that mimics and can cause things like depression and anxiety, just on the bare minimum level. It's also a situation that can be very traumatic for many people," she explained.
What's worse, if these feelings aren't expressed, they're insidious, or happen all the time, they can have lasting physical effects on the body, also known as psychosomatic symptoms, such as high blood pressure, digestive problems, and body aches, Dr. Chapple explained. "Because when you have certain types of feelings running through you like adrenaline, or the things that come from fear, the things that come from hypervigilance, those things actually change the chemicals in your body. Physically, yes, racism can be very dangerous."
For example, if you're worried about something, you may experience feeling restless at night as you try to sleep because your body is still trying to process the event or situation. "For people who are being discriminated against or living in this kind of state of hypervigilance of not knowing what's going to happen, that fear will make your body temperature, or your body function, continue to run. So it's like you have your car in park but you're putting your foot on the gas. So sometimes when we are sleeping, that's what's happening. Our body is racing, our pulse is going up, our blood pressure is going up," she explained.
"The field of mental health wasn't built for folk of color."
This also occurs in our daily lives when we're in situations that invoke a similar emotional response and we aren't sure how to respond, she said. These experiences not only cause hypervigilance and psychosomatic symptoms but can also have a negative impact on one's mental health.
Racism Causes and Exacerbates Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma
"The field of mental health wasn't built for folk of color. So do folk of color have symptoms and reactions to racism? Absolutely, but the traditional DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) does not show that," Crawford said. "This is why you have heightened anxiety. This is why you have heightened depression," she continued.
According to Crawford, "There's so many other disorders and diagnoses that are heightened due to that oppression because what we know is that it's coming from trauma. When we're looking at any mental health disorder, mental health illness, [a] majority of it is coming from trauma. And we experience a lot of our trauma from our oppression. So of course it's going to be exasperated into these various elements."
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions caused by and heightened due to racism, Dr. Chapple said, which often causes people to overthink situations. For example, if someone is in the process of searching for a job, they may experience thoughts such as whether or not they will get a call back from a recruiter or whether the reason they didn't get the job was because of their name, appearance, or characteristics that make them who they are. "The anxiety points to the constantly thinking about defending yourself or the constantly thinking about the what if," she further explained.
"Trauma is the next step above anxiety because it gets to a point in which you are so hypervigilant that you can't really function on anything else," Dr. Chapple explained. When people are experiencing trauma due to racism, they often change the ways in which they do things to avoid discomfort or simply avoid doing things because they don't want to deal with it. For example, someone may not like their job but at the same time, they won't look for a new one because it can feel overwhelming or too great of a burden. Some people may also become short or irritable, which is also a marker of depression. Even if someone may not have experienced an act of racism or discrimination, Dr. Chapple further explained that witnessing others be discriminated against or mistreated ends up personally affecting us and is racial trauma.
Depression is another mental condition people who have experienced racism may experience. Markers of depression are overeating, undereating, sleeping too much, the inability to sleep, and a general feeling of sadness, Dr. Chapple explained. For some, body aches, tension, and irritability (especially in Black people and people of color) will arise.
"There are ways in which our society is set up institutionally that may be racist that will add to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes — all of these things," Dr. Chapple stated. "But specifically, there are characteristics about how we have to govern ourselves in society that has really, really caused an uptick in depression, anxiety, and trauma-related symptoms," Dr. Chapple explained.
How to Survive in a Racist Society
There isn't a perfect way to cope when you've experienced racism, but Crawford and Dr. Chapple shared their advice on how to improve your emotional and physical well-being.
"Try to limit consumption of news and social media, and set boundaries and mute or block people who cause undue stress."
"I think the first step is really acknowledging it with intention," Crawford said. It's also important to be honest with your feelings and whenever possible, be truthful about how you are doing and what you need, Dr. Chapple said. She also recommends creating a self-care routine consisting of, but not limited to, meditation, grounding activities, yoga, stretching, and breathwork to calm the body and mind.
In addition to practicing emotional self-care, "Try to limit consumption of news and social media, and set boundaries and mute or block people who cause undue stress," Dr. Chapple said. "Create those boundaries for yourself, because continuously seeing all of this racial violence is not healthy, and we're actually being destigmatized to it as folk of color, which is even more concerning because that just means we're holding onto the trauma to pass it down to the next generation," Crawford added.
Engaging in life-affirming activities like playing games, working on puzzles, watching movies, exercising, gardening, and taking naps can also help relieve stress, Dr. Chapple said. It's also imperative you process your feelings by speaking to a therapist, a spiritual advisor, or emotionally safe friends and family. And when you do, allow yourself to be vulnerable and resist the urge to minimize your feelings, Dr. Chapple advised.
Racism won't be eradicated overnight, and these are just a few ways to improve your mental health and well-being while navigating a racist society. Although racism is woven into the fabric of society, Crawford stressed the importance of critiquing that narrative because "while it's always been present, it's also important for us to start our healing so that we're not passing this on to the next generation."