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  • Writer's pictureWill Dempsey

Racism’s Impact on Mental Health

Our minds exist in conversation with the world around us. We’re all shaped by the people in our lives — our friends and family — especially during early childhood. Crucially, however, we’re also shaped by the environment around us. When you’re born into an environment that can be cruel or hostile for no other reason than the color of your skin, it takes a heavy toll on your mental health.


In today’s article, we’ll explore the ways in which racism can impact your mental health.


Chronic Stress


When you’re part of a minority faced with overt and covert racism, it can leave you with a sense that danger could come from anywhere at any time. Our bodies become highly tuned to that danger. We are left constantly looking for signs someone might be untrustworthy or that something might be off. Living in that state takes a serious toll. Chronic stress lives in the body as well as the mind. It’s the wear and tear of being forced to run at full tilt more often than not.


This effect is compounded by living in a highly connected world. We are drowning in constant noise that turns our race into a political talking point or a visceral form of entertainment. It’s impossible to explain to people who don’t understand what it’s like to be part of a community that is constantly exposed to the tragic realities of living in a racist system — seeing people who look like you, your friends, and your loved ones persecuted or even killed over the color of their skin.


Some of the common symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Anxiety

  • Emotional Dysregulation

  • Depression

  • PTSD

  • Issues with memory

  • Exhaustion

  • Physical health issues

  • Poor sleep patterns


Internalized Racism


When there’s a constant drumbeat of casual racism in the background of your life, it can be easy to internalize those narratives and make your racial identity a source of shame rather than joy. Over time, this sort of thinking can lead to a sense of confusion, anger, and frustration over one’s identity — as well as depression and low self-esteem.

Even when we avoid letting those harmful stereotypes take root in our minds, it’s still necessary to navigate the internalized racism of our peers and figures in the media.



Everyday Racism


Beyond traumatic experiences and tragic circumstances, there’s wear and tear that comes from everyday encounters with racism. For many, “jokes” and microaggressions are a daily reality. You may be afraid to push back for fear of sparking a bigger conflict — but just as many people feel worn down and emotionally exhausted by their efforts. We’re all human, and it’s hard to fight the good fight every day, even when it desperately needs to be fought.


Other Impacts


Racism may also cause a host of other mental health challenges. People exposed to racism are more likely to suffer from anxiety, imposter syndrome, and depression. Our bodies aren’t made to live under that kind of constant stress. Even when things seem good, one bad experience can send us into a depressive cycle or trigger a sense of despair. Under the circumstances, those feelings should be regarded as natural — even expected.


Accordingly, giving yourself the grace to process those feelings in whatever way works best for you is critical. It’s important to establish safety in your life, find joy in hobbies, and community that rekindles your faith in others.


Schedule a Consultation

In my practice, I work with clients from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds — many of them from persecuted minority groups. Unpacking the effects of racism is a long journey, but there are tools and strategies that can help. Reach out today if you want to explore how to heal the wounds you carry with you in trauma therapy.

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