Hate Speech Hurts: Examining the impact on Mental Health & Wellbeing

What we need to remember that while Freedom of Speech is one thing, Hate Speech is another. In a time which is dominated by social media and populism, there has been a significant rise in the cases of hate speech taking place and this not only has a great cost to community safety and the preservation of democracy, but also to the Mental Health and wellbeing of those affected.



In recent times, we have seen discrimination, hate, and radical ideologies shift from being limited to the fringe elements of society to making it to mainstream media (and social media) as well as political and social discourse. Hate speech is often described as ‘words that wound’ and while there is no universal definition of what constitutes Hate Speech, but what can be said is that it is something which society as a whole needs to take seriously and not as something which is just offensive to those who are “overly-sensitive”. In the pandemic alone, there have been reports of a 20% rise in hate speech online. Hate speech can be looked at as verbal or written words or symbolic acts that convey negative and prejudiced views about people or groups based on their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability. This isn't always limited to face to face confrontations or chants from a crowd at a rally, but also includes online posts, posters, text on a t-shirt, flyers etc. It is essentially disapproving and discriminatory language targeted on others on the basis of who they are which incites hate. While hate speech has the power of leading to violence, it is also important to understand that it can take a huge toll on the Mental Health of those being targeted and on-lookers as well, and that is something we will look at more closely in this piece.


When we look at hate speech, besides the threat that it poses to the safety of the individuals/ groups being targeted, it is also important to assess the Mental Health impacts it is capable of having. Exposure to hate speech can increase self-harm and suicidal tendencies amongst vulnerable individuals, while also causing them emotional trauma. Exposure to hate speech and online hate can lead to chronically elevated stress levels which are often referred to as low-grade stress. In the short term this can dampen our moods, drain our energy and leave us feeling fatigued. Prolonged exposure to such stress can lead to cognitive impairment, stress-related diseases, depression and anxiety as well. In children and young people, it can affect their threshold for stress tolerance in their later life. Additionally, those who have been victims of hate speech also experience psychological symptoms resembling Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) including fear, anxiety, nightmares, tremors and intrusive thoughts. Furthermore, victims of hate speech also report low self-esteem, sleep disturbances, higher levels of anxiety along with feeling of fear, isolation, loneliness and insecurity. They are also at an increased risk of developing social anxiety and may further isolate themselves. Individuals who experience hate speech (either online on in-person) also might feel that their dignity has been violated and might not see themselves as fitting in with social norms. Hate speech can also threaten their subjective wellbeing and erode their trust in the rest of society as well. For those who might not have directly experienced hate speech but have been exposed to it through the television, news debates or social media, it can also lead to vicarious trauma and leave them feeling shaken.


Now that we have looked at how hate speech affects individual Mental Health and wellbeing, we should also factor in the societal cost that it has and how it affects us all as communities. It can often lead to the normalisation of discrimination, prejudice, stereotypes, intolerance and hateful attitudes. It can also lead to a big threat to freedom of speech and expression as those who face hate speech in any form might start to suppress their own voices and opinions – and such a society cannot progress. Hate speeches also threaten the very fabric of social cohesion and can lead to radicalisation and polarisation within communities. We also know that the more derogatory language that is experienced, the greater the damage to intergroup relationships which can lead to empathy for others being replaced by contempt, fear or distrust. It can also reduce our sensitivity to such hateful language and normalise these speeches to the point that this can lead to individuals seeing hateful comments as jokes or casual comments. Such attitudes can end up minimising the impact of hate speech or link such hateful content to freedom of speech which can be very harmful to society.


Having experienced Hate speech, irrespective of the form and medium can take a toll on one’s Mental Health. There are a few things which can help in this regard which includes reporting the comments or videos to the online social media platform and trying to avoid engaging with it to avoid giving the perpetrators the attention that they might be seeking. Limit your exposure to the news and social media to avoid seeing the repeated reports or replays of the similar hate speeches as this can be triggering and traumatising as well. You can also choose to confide in someone you trust, a helpline or a Mental Health professional about what you’re feeling – know that this can be hurtful and whatever you are feeling is valid. You are not alone in what you’re going through and if this is causing you distress, there is help available to help you cope and aid your recovery.


Hate speech incites violence and undermines social cohesion and tolerance and the devastating impact that hatred can have is not something new, history bears witness to this as well. In today’s digital era, hate speech has the ability to scale up and have a much larger impact than it did before and online platforms have quickly become platforms for divisive and hateful rhetoric on a global scale which threatens peace and harmony.


All in all, we need to understand that hate and hate speeches, whether they are based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion or anything is not acceptable and can have significant ill-effects on individuals and societies as a whole, especially when it comes to Mental Health and wellbeing. The responsibility to be more aware, alert and strive to curb hate and hate speeches thus lies on us.


 

Written by: Vedica Podar


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June, 2022