As a follow-up to my earlier posts on the psychology of well-being, I am writing today to discuss the relationship between racism and well-being.
We live in a systematically and explicitly racist society that perpetuates White supremacy. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (among many others) cannot be fully explained and understood through examination of their individual and specific elements. In the same way, we cannot expect people’s individual and specific behaviors to sufficiently account for differences in their relative levels of well-being and mental health. We know that racism, especially anti-Black racism, harms people of color, especially Black people. The American Public Health Association has summarized this concisely: Racism is a public health crisis.
There are significant racial disparities in mental health, and racism contributes to these disparities both directly and indirectly. Structural racism, such as the impact of redlining policies on Black families’ ability to accrue wealth, contributes to significant differences in access to resources that adversely affect mental health and decrease access to mental health care. In addition to structural racism, individuals’ personal experiences of racism are associated with psychological distress, anxiety, and depression, and racism is associated with greater negative mental health and lower positive mental health. These consequences are not limited to experiences with overt discrimination; racial microaggressions also contribute to negative mental health outcomes. When unarmed Black Americans are killed by the police, Black Americans experience significant decreases in mental health that are not observed among White Americans.
The effects of racism on well-being are compounded by differential access to appropriate mental health care and the effects of racism and bias within the mental health care system. Racial biases in clinical diagnosis and decision-making can affect treatment; for example, Black patients are more likely to be given a diagnosis of schizophrenia than White patients with comparable symptom profiles, and ethnic minority clients are less likely to receive high-quality and appropriate treatment for alcohol use disorders. When they engage with mental health services, African American and Hispanic clients report less favorable perceptions of their experiences compared to White clients. The likelihood that college students will access campus mental health services increases with greater representation of counselors from their own racial/ethnic background, and racial/ethnic minority clients are more engaged in therapy and experience better therapeutic outcomes with a therapist who shares their racial/ethnic identity. However, because Black and Hispanic therapists are significantly underrepresented in psychology and other mental health care professions compared to the general population, clients from racial/ethnic minority groups have less access to providers who share these elements of identity.
We cannot talk about well-being without addressing racism. I have included two sets of resources below. In the first set, I have compiled resources that specifically address the mental health needs of Black students. The second set provides resources and suggestions for ways that White people can challenge racism and White supremacy, because we cannot successfully promote well-being and reduce racial disparities in mental health without dismantling the racist systems that create them.
Although racism is also associated with adverse physical and mental health consequences for non-Black people of color, I have chosen to focus on resources addressing the mental health needs of Black students specifically due to the particular ways in which the racial history of the United States has targeted Blackness. Racial identity is complex and cannot be distilled into Black and White; at the same time, anti-Blackness is widespread and pervasive. I hope that non-Black students of color will find some of the resources related to challenging anti-Blackness to be valuable. In addition, Mental Health America provides resources related to mental health specific to Latinx/Hispanic, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Native American, and LGBTQ communities, and further information and resources are available through the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health.
As the president of the American Psychological Association has said, “we are living in a racism pandemic.” Earlier in the semester, I shared with you the hope that the field of psychology could help us cope with the challenges posed by the spread of COVID-19. Similarly, I remain hopeful that the work we do in psychology can help us respond to this “racism pandemic,” not only by finding ways to cope with it but through working to eliminate it.
For Black Students: Resources to Support Black Mental Health
I want to begin by acknowledging that anything I suggest to you as individuals can never be sufficient to address the harm that you experience as a result of systemic and structural forces. The president of the American Psychological Association has been criticized for encouraging people to “practice self-care” in response to the trauma of exposure to high-profile violence perpetuated against Black people. I do not expect self-care to undo the psychological harms caused by chronic exposure to racism; you cannot bubble bath your way out of the consequences of systemic oppression. At the same time, I want to recognize that prioritizing caring for yourself – in the context of a system that explicitly devalues your body and your identity – can be a radical, political statement. For centuries, Black people – especially Black women – have been required to care for others at the expense of their own well-being. You deserve resources that address your needs. Your lives matter. Your well-being matters.
- The Black Emotional & Mental Health Collective provides a range of tool kits and resources specifically addressing the emotional needs of Black and marginalized communities.
- They also maintain the Black Virtual Therapist Network, which provides a list of licensed Black therapists who can provide therapy virtually.
- “Our Mental Health Minute” is a 25-episode (and counting) series from Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson and Dr. Shawn Jones. These episodes are designed to provide relatable and engaging information about mental health knowledge and treatment for the Black community.
- Therapy for Black Girls is a weekly podcast dedicated to promoting mental health for Black women and girls.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness has specific resources for African Americans.
- The Safe Place is an app that integrates educational resources, coping strategies, and discussions related to Black mental health.
- For a growing list of additional resources, To Write Love On Her Arms has compiled a list of mental health resources “created by and for Black people.”
For White Students: Resources for Understanding & Addressing Systemic Racism, White Supremacy and anti-Blackness
The suggestions below might feel like they do not fit within the scope of a project promoting well-being. You might even feel like you experience lower well-being by following them – you might feel more anxious, angry, or upset; you might feel uncomfortable or defensive. Within the field of positive psychology, we can draw on two historic conceptualizations of well-being to explore this tension. According to the first approach, hedonism, well-being is characterized by the maximization of pleasurable experiences and the minimization of pain. In contrast, a eudaimonic approach characterizes well-being as a state in which one’s behaviors correspond with one’s values. This kind of well-being does not always feel comfortable. As Davidson students, I hope that you find that this discomfort is in service of your efforts to “develop humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.”
- Educate yourself about racism, White supremacy, and anti-Blackness. Draw on the skills, knowledge and resources that you have as Davidson students to identify what you do not know and begin, or continue, the process of learning more. Consider the ways in which your education has excluded scholars from marginalized groups, and seek out the expertise that this marginalization has kept from you. Critically examine the sources of information and voices that are amplified within your typical environment, then use this knowledge to inform your decisions about what to read and to whom you listen. If you need a jumping-off point, consider starting with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. Consider taking a course in Black Psychology or the Psychology of Prejudice. Read Professor Phia Salter’s work, like this article from Current Directions in Psychological Science addressing the ways racism is present both “in the head” and “in the world.”
- Familiarize yourself with the ways in which racism is present and experienced by members of our community.
- Follow the Davidson Microaggressions Project.
- Read Professor Isaac Bailey’s article, “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and One Journalist’s Painfully Honest Self-Examination on Racism”
- Read Professor Helen Cho’s blog post, “Dear White Colleagues”
- Learn about the history of racism at Davidson. Keep an eye out for a forthcoming report from Davidson’s Commission on Race & Slavery. Explore the sources in the library’s guides on Slavery & Abolition and Integration at Davidson.
- Recognize and reflect upon your own racial privilege – not to acknowledge it (you do not need to name your whiteness to benefit from it) or to “check” it (you did nothing to earn your privilege, so nothing you do can deprive you of its benefits) – but to use it. Being aware of the ways in which your own racial identity protects and benefits you can allow you to recognize circumstances in which you can use your privilege in service of anti-racism. By virtue of your whiteness, you are more likely to be listened to, and less at-risk of harm from being perceived as threatening. What will you do with this knowledge?
The Science: Racial Socialization as an Intervention for Race-Related Trauma
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson is a clinical and community psychologist in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Her research investigates the use of interventions based on “racial socialization,” which includes verbal and nonverbal ways that families communicate about race, to address stress and trauma from race-based experiences. She has developed the Engaging, Managing & Bonding through Race (EMBRace) program that promotes family and individual well-being and positive outcomes through reducing racial stress and providing coping strategies that help families and adolescents cope with racial trauma.
Anderson, R. E., McKenny, M., Mitchell, A., Koku, L., & Stevenson, H. C. (2017). EMBRacing racial stress & trauma: Preliminary feasibility & coping responses of a racial socialization intervention. Journal of Black Psychology, 44(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798417732930
Abstract: The goal of this article is to report initial feasibility and coping response data from a pilot study of a new five-session intervention (Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race [EMBRace]) for Black families utilizing racial socialization to address stress and trauma from racial encounters. Ten caregiver and youth dyads were enrolled and completed the EMBRace intervention. Feasibility was based on a closed-option survey for therapists as well as open-ended participant responses to program satisfaction post-intervention. Responses to stress management were assessed via repeated measures of self-reported coping strategies throughout the sessions. EMBRace was deemed to be acceptable by the majority of therapists and participants with regard to discussing racial encounters. Participant responses were categorized into five primary codes, including advice, clinician approach, program changes, likes, and dislikes. Participants’ coping data throughout the intervention indicates changes in the hypothesized direction (e.g., increased attention to and identification of stressor and decreased stress). The pilot data indicate the desirability of the intervention as well as useful participant feedback for future iterations of EMBRace.