Combatting the Toll of Racism on Mental Health

Combatting the Toll of Racism on Mental Health

Black Health and Wellness is the theme of Black History Month 2022

 After walking into a hospital room to administer medicine, her patient told her to go find a nurse because he wanted his prescriptions to be administered by a professional, recalls Kezia, who has a master's degree in nursing and has practiced for more than 20 years.     

"Since I'm black he probably thought that I was there to empty his garbage can. I had to explain to him that I was a nurse and I’m not even sure he believed me,” she recalled from her home in Fairfax. “I have to let things like that roll off because I have to deal with all kinds of people all day.” 

The constancy of experiencing racism, even subtly, can have a negative impact on the mental health of those on the receiving end of such behaviors, say area mental health professionals. The theme of Black History Month 2022, “Black Health and Wellness,” offers an opportunity to recognize and address the issue on a personal level. 

The theme is set by Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

“Constantly feeling the need to repress slights and other acts of racism is psychologically damaging,” said Arlington psychotherapist Robyn Wright, Ph.D. “The unresolved pain of being a victim of racism is fertile ground for mental health problems like depression, anxiety and substance abuse.”   

Expressions of racism are often unconscious or subtle, and therefore are not addressed or recognized, advised family therapist Jaclyn Lewis who practices in Bethesda and Alexandria. “Most white people don’t express overt racism like using racial slurs, so it’s easy for us to overlook it, accept it and bury the anger and sadness,” she said. “We have to make ourselves aware of the toll that it’s taking on our mental health.”   

“We have to find ways to take care of ourselves and give ourselves a mental health break,” continued Lewis. “Sometimes this means getting out of our comfort zone and finding ways to practice relaxation every day. We can do it through meditation and even deep breathing to reduce the stress that we’ve become so accustomed to that we don’t even recognize it.” 

Identifying a place that is filled with like-minded people can be empowering and stress-relieving, advises Wright. “It can be spending time with friends who you can let your guard down with,” she said. “It can also be at church or another house of worship. The bottom line is that we need a reprieve from the feeling of constantly having our guard up or feeling like we have to look or behave a certain way to feel accepted.” 

Anger is often an automatic reaction to racism or bias. Using those feelings to take action in a way that brings about change can reduce the negative impact on one’s mental health, suggests Lewis. 

“Vote, register to vote, make sure your family and friends register and vote. Speak up calmly when you feel racism or bias. Protest and raise awareness but do it peacefully so that people will be able to hear and accept our views.” 

Resisting the urge to give up or succumb to feelings of hopelessness can help guard against depression, says Wright.  “You don’t have to experience racism first-hand to feel the effects of it,” she said. “Even seeing it on television or reading about it in the newspaper can be painful. … Learning about the rich history of African Americans and important contributions to society that are often overlooked, can give you a sense of pride instead of a sense of being inferior.”