The Impact of Race on Mental Health and Well-being
The U.S. is at a turning point in facing complex, systemic racial issues. Negative emotional and physical experiences such as exclusion, violence, and poverty stemming from race can have a direct impact on the mental health of people from underrepresented populations. As the recent series of events have shown, African American and Asian American populations currently lack both physical safety and emotional belonging, which have both psychological and physiological impacts.
Feelings of non-belonging and lack of physical safety can trigger anxiety, stress and depression. Individuals can feel like external situations are out of control and, as a result, can be in a state of constant vigilance and fight-or-flight. When people repeatedly feel they do not belong, they can develop internalized beliefs that they are voiceless, are invisible, do not have agency in creating change, and/or are not allowed to take up physical, intellectual, and emotional space. These factors may lead to a sense of learned helplessness and hopelessness.
Non-belonging and lack of safety can also be felt physiologically. When a person feels welcomed and safe, the body can physiologically feel relaxed and calm, and can breathe easily. When a person feels unwelcome or unsafe, the body can physiologically feel tense, alert or small, and can lead to shallow breathing.
The current events of Black Lives Matter and Asian American Hate Crimes undoubtedly impacts a person’s mental and physical well-being. However, unprocessed experiences with racism from an individual’s past and collective historical trauma can also have a direct impact on a person’s mental health. The imprints of systemic slavery and oppression, immigration and exclusion, unless processed, can stay with the individual and be passed down generationally.
Support & Care
People from underrepresented groups are also less likely to receive mental health care due to stigma. In 2015, among adults with any mental illness, 48% of whites received mental health services, compared with 31% of Blacks and Hispanics, and 22% of Asians.
How Employers Can Help
Here are a few suggestions on what organizations and mental health professionals can do to support individuals in underrepresented populations experiencing mental health challenges:
- Education on Racial History: Gain a broader historical context on the shaping of race dynamics in America. This understanding helps when engaging in conversation and in supporting individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
- Trauma Awareness and Support: Gain an understanding of how racial trauma impacts individuals and the common signs of trauma. Provide easy access to trauma-informed mental health practitioners who can work with the individual on emotional and physiological well-being.
- Increasing Social Responsibility: Donate time and invest financially in causes that support racial equity and diversity; support employees in investing volunteer hours for local and community causes to reshape racial relations.
- Engaging in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Create safe spaces for individuals of underrepresented groups to participate in listening sessions with each other. Encourage BIPOC leaders to participate in these conversations and panels to share their lived experiences. Then separately, create spaces for allies and individuals of underrepresented groups to have dialogue sessions.
- Psychological Safety Training: Attend training on how to communicate about race, diversity, and inclusion. Equip individuals with deep listening skills. Understand that racism and exclusion are unconsciously carried out in behavior and thought, intellectual knowledge alone will not shift the landscape.
When it comes to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can all make a positive difference. The health and wellness of our organizations and communities depends on it.
About the Author
Abby Wen Wu is a consultant to the Center for Workplace Mental Health and helps progressive organizations in creating workplace safety and belonging.