A Growing Push to Treat Racism’s Impact on Mental Health
There’s an accelerating push by psychologists and psychiatrists to identify stress and trauma caused by racism—and develop interventions to address it.
The move comes out of a growing recognition that the impact of racism on the mental health of Black people has often been ignored. This has led many patients to be undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or not adequately treated for their distress, doctors and therapists say. The most recent efforts are being led by a new generation of Black psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health advocates.
Research has found a link between racism and psychological distress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among Black people. “If you are not thinking about societal, structural racism when it comes to Black mental health, you are missing a big part of it,” says Sarah Y. Vinson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
The push to measure and address the impact of racism on mental health has gained more urgency in recent months since the killing of George Floyd. “In the current moment, given what happened to George Floyd, it has induced a collective trauma, particularly among Black Americans,” says Annelle Primm, a psychiatrist and senior medical director of the Steve Fund, an organization that supports the mental health of young people of color.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression in non-Hispanic Black adults rose to 40.5% May 28 to June 2 from 35.6% May 21 to 26 and remain elevated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The moves to address racism’s impact on mental health have met with some resistance within psychiatry. Some psychiatrists don’t believe it’s appropriate to incorporate the effects of racism into diagnosis and treatment, says Dr. Vinson. “These issues of social justice and racism—some people say this is not our lane,” she says.
Researchers have created new metrics to identify what they term race-based stress and trauma. They have also developed new interventions that focus on validating patients’ experiences of discrimination, bolstering positive racial identity and helping build resilience.