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Racism, Inequality & Mental Health in BIPOC communities

This past week has not only marked one year since the tragic passing away of George Floyd which lead to the iconic Black Lives Matter protests in many parts of the world, but it has also been a year in the pandemic which brought out several stories of rising inequalities and racially motivated hate crimes. Now more than ever is the need for us to have these conversations exploring Racism, Inequalities and Mental Health, especially with regards to the BIPOC community. These issues are closely linked and the discrimination can often worsen Mental Health conditions while also making accessing effective treatment more difficult.

Mental Health affects us all irrespective of our gender, age, ethnicity or race & talking about it is important to end the stigma and barriers which exist. Mental Health conditions don't discriminate & neither should we. Racism refers to the systemic and institutional oppression of certain racial groups, simply based on who they are. This can manifest in several ways be it stereotyping, hate crimes, and economic inequality, all of which can have a detrimental effect on mental health. In addition to taking various forms, we need to also remember that racism can happen anywhere. It can happen at school, at work, in stores, on the bus, or at home; it can happen online or outside; it can even happen within families and relationships. Sometimes racist abuse is obvious - verbal abuse about the way someone looks, stereotypes about how someone might behave, or physical violence and bullying, for example. Sometimes racism is part of the structures and systems that we live in and this is far more dangerous as it can be far more ‘subtle’ and difficult for other people to notice. The important thing is to focus on seeing the situation and how it makes us feel. This piece will explore the Mental Health implications of racism, the stigma and challenges faced by the BIPOC community and what we can do to make a difference.

Racism has profound impacts on Mental Health and wellbeing of individuals both in the short and long term. It can lead to hopelessness, a feeling of being disconnected and lonely, increase in depression and anxiety, pushing people to feel on the edge and feeling they are in ‘survival mode’ along with increased worry, fear, mistrust, powerlessness, panic, trauma and existential questioning. There is also a growing body of research to suggest that those exposed to racism may be more likely to experience mental health problems such as psychosis and depression.

Mental health continues to be very stigmatized especially in BIPOC communities. Many times, individuals are asked to not talk about it owing to misinformation or the false belief that having a Mental Health illness makes one a failure or is seen as a sign of weakness or a character flaw. Given that in some communities Mental Health and emotional distress is rarely spoken about due to it being seen in a negative light, this can be a barrier to engagement with health services and holds people back from reaching out for help. In addition to this, there is still a lot of disparity which exists when it comes to the Mental Healthcare access which is available to members of the BIPOC community which directly corelates to the systemic racism and the lack of diversity and cultural awareness within the healthcare space. We need to acknowledge that this is unacceptable and needs to change. Stigma is always damaging as it can make it harder for individuals to be able to share their stories/ experiences and reach out for help, which pushes many to suffer in silence and enhances their trauma. On order to ensure equitable access, we need to start by ending the stigma. While every individual of the BIPOC community has different experiences & stories, overall they remain more likely to face stigma, racism & discrimination in relation to Mental Health. In case of treatment, challenges linked to access & affordability are also profound. Often individuals from the BIPOC community find it hard to access help either due to it being unaffordable, unavailable or due to the fear of being discriminated or invalidated. Additionally, the cultural stigma, language barriers, and cultural (in)competency also play a role when it comes to access to care. A lack of professionals from their own community often also makes people feel that the professional will not be able to understand their frame of reference entirely. An individual who doesn't think they will be understood by a professional then becomes someone who is least likely to seek treatment.

Reducing Mental Health disparities starts with increasing access to care, encouraging conversations and taking a look at what communities need which also includes reviewing the existing systems. As part of these efforts emphasis needs to be given to providing services to those who are uninsured, having more culturally and linguistically competent providers to bridge the language barriers and cultural stigma and providing funding to support the communities who need this most. As individuals, we also have the onus on us to be better allies & create safe spaces if we want people to feel safe to talk about their Mental Health. We need strive to validate people’s experiences, feeling and stories while listening non-judgmentally and parking aside our own Frame of Reference. Sharing our stories can help too towards encouraging open conversations, spreading awareness to counter the stigma & striving to create safe spaces by which we can make people feel safe & help them to open up about their Mental Health. To reduce disparities, we can strive to raise awareness to normalize conversations, encourage action to address the existing flaws in and to improve the systems in place for Mental Health treatment & create community support groups which can then become safe spaces. We also need to address the disparities in the current Mental Health system by having more BIPOC practitioners & role-models/ Ambassadors to build a cultural connection while also encouraging conversations & having cultural-sensitivity programs for existing professionals across backgrounds. Another way by which we can raise awareness about Mental Health involves us sharing statistics, information and resources about Mental Health and Mental Illnesses, creating outreach programs to help open up the floor for such crucial conversations to take place.

We need to normalize Mental Health and these conversations beyond just talking about a diagnosis. We need to care for our minds as we do for our physical health and having awareness building conversations, available support and reliable resources to build knowledge can also contribute to helping people to open up and seek support should they need it for their Mental Health. We need to always remember that just the way Mental health conditions do not discriminate based on race, color, gender or identity, neither should we. Anyone can experience the challenges of mental illness regardless of their background, but unfortunately today an individual’s background and identity can make access to Mental Health treatment much more difficult for them, and this needs to change. We need to strive harder to make the goal of ‘Mental Health for all’ a reality while improving the system and having services which are available, accessible and affordable to all members of the community. We all have Mental Health and it's important we talk about it if we want to normalize & broaden the conversations to ensure that no one is left out from the conversation due to factors like their socio-economic status, age, gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity.


Written by: Vedica Podar

May, 2021


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