African American parents consoling their sad girl at home.

Effects of Discrimination on Mental Health and Well-Being  

As a nation, America has turned its attention to issues of racial injustice and discrimination. It’s caused institutions at all levels to examine their practices and policies. But as this critical work is underway, communities of color and minorities are still living in systems rife with disparities and prejudice. While news coverage of extreme acts of racial discrimination, hate and violence has spurred action, at a personal level this heightened sense of awareness can heavily impact the mental health and well-being of individuals in these communities.  

Impacts on Adults  

Constant reminders of racism and discrimination can impact an individual’s mental health – no matter what their lived experience may be. Especially in the current 24/7 news cycle, the prevalence of videos and photos bearing witness to violence, injustice and acts of hate that exist in America today can be incredibly stressful and traumatizing. There’s also a degree of sadness and grief individuals can carry with them as a result. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness states Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness, hopelessness and feeling like everything is an effort.  

Here are some things to keep in mind about how adults might react:  

  • Stress reactions to traumatic events depend upon the severity and may last from a few days to a few months, or longer.  
  • Symptoms of a stress reaction are varied and can be physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral.  

Taking a break from media coverage of current events and focusing on personal health and wellness may not feel like the most productive thing to do – but it’s a good first step to reducing stress and focusing on what to do next. Professional assistance from a counselor may be necessary to overcome powerful trauma. 

Impacts on Children  

Children live in the same world as adults – and they are experiencing the same emotions adults are feeling. Yet they don’t have the ability to cope with their emotions in the same way.  

The prevalence of social media in older children’s lives also makes them vulnerable to being overexposed to traumatic events in the media depicting acts of racism and aggression, which can have a severe negative impact on their mental health.  

For children, carrying chronic stress can lead to physical changes in their body that can cause inflammation – which puts them more at risk for chronic disease throughout the rest of their lives.  

Impact on Physical Health  

Mental health is directly tied to physical health. So as an individual’s mental health suffers, so will their sense of well-being. The body’s reaction to stress is a fight or flight reaction – which means if the body is experiencing stress over a long period of time, it will continue to operate in “lifesaving” mode. As a result, individuals with long-term stress might experience issues with the following bodily functions:  

    • Immune system  
    • Digestive system  
    • Cardiovascular system 
    • Reproductive system  
    • Headaches  
    • Sleeplessness  
    • Sadness  
    • Anger  
    • Irritability  

     If stress continues over time, it could contribute to serious health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other issues including depression and anxiety. Seeking help from a licensed mental health provider to help individuals process their emotions tied to racial injustices is an important step to avoid long-term health problems from chronic stress.  

    Find Help 

    While members of minority communities may face barriers to accessing the treatment and care that they need, help is available. Individuals without insurance can access free or low-cost mental health services through Community Mental Health programsFederally Qualified health Centers, free or low-cost care locations and Safety Net Clinics. For those with insurance, start by calling the number on the back of the insurance I.D. card to be connected to a mental health provider.  

    William Beecroft, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Bridget Hurd is vice president of Inclusion & Diversity at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

    More from MIBluesPerspectives:

  • Tackling Barriers to Mental Health Care in Minority Communities
  • Institutional Bias and its Impacts on Health
  • Finding Mental Health Resources for Underserved Communities 
    Photo credit: Getty Images

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