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Language & You - Racism

Language & You - Racism

With the state of mental health care in this country being what it is, it’s no surprise that we often look at it from the perspective of the majority. Fighting for proper mental health care is already such a battle that often minorities within this realm aren’t included in the conversation. With July being National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (NMMHA), now is a perfect time to try and correct for that.

This month, we will be covering mental health through the lens of minority groups, primarily through the lens of race and culture. Specifically, we will be looking at how racism can affect mental health and the different ways that racism can manifest in our language. As a disclaimer, I would like to say that while we speak broadly in this piece, no two cultures or communities will be the same. There may be things listed here that won’t apply to every community out there, nor will every solution speak to the whole.

Before we look at how racism can affect mental health, I think it best that we have an acting definition of racism. In generally, racism is discrimination against a certain group based on race, with power backing that discrimination. The key part there is power, for without power you can’t have the same kind of negative consequences. So, while a certain group might be discriminated against in certain instances, if they hold a majority power, it can’t amount to racism.

With that in mind, let’s now look at how this can affect mental health. Firstly, those who face racism are more likely to develop mental health issues. In a study done by the UCLA, they found that people aged 18 – 28 who frequently faced racist behavior or actions were 25% more likely to develop mental illness or mental distress. Part of this is due to trauma, as having to endure racism can be a very traumatic experience for some. This can cause symptoms such as stress, anxiety, and depression, and in some cases symptoms that mirror that of PTSD.

We can also point to racism as large contributing factor. In a survey by the American Psychological Association, they estimated that racial discrimination is a predominant source of stress in 67% of Black adults. Further studies show that across Black, Hispanic, and Asian groups, 63% face racial discrimination overall. When you bundle this frequency with the types of symptoms that can be caused, it becomes clear why mental health issues are more prevalent in these communities.

So, we know that racism is a negative detriment to mental health, but in what ways does racism present itself in our language? Well, the first way is the most obvious, that being racial slurs. Slurs, of any type, are meant to refer to members of a certain groups in a derogatory way. The same holds true for racial slurs, which seek something similar on the basis of race. Racism of this kind is usually very blatant and easy to see to the casual observer.

A more subtle way that racism can sneak into the way we speak is through microaggressions. Simply put, these are slights, snubs or insults that are directed at a person, intentionally or unintentionally, based on the group they belong to. An example of this would be someone saying that an Asian person speaks English very well, despite that being their first language.

A 2012 Roosevelt University study found and catalogued 6 keyways that racial microaggressions can present themselves.

· Invisibility - Being treated of as lower in status, viewpoints not being considered.

· Criminality - Treated as aggressive or dangerous.

· Low Achieving - Assuming one’s racial background determines how well they will do.

· Sexualization - Being treated in an overly sexual manner.

· Foreigner - Being made to feel as one doesn’t belong.

· Environmental Invalidations - Negative ideas about one’s race from observation that they don’t hold prominence in work, school, or government.

While there are feelings that this term simply means people are being “too sensitive” on a subject, microaggressions can have the same negative mental health effects as more blatant forms of racism. This is because they present people who face them with the same type of frequent trauma that other forms of language might provide.

Somewhere in between blatant racial slurs and microaggressions is something called linguistic racism, discrimination due to accent, dialect or speech patterns. This can manifest as telling someone to “speak proper English” or making fun of the way someone talks. This then feeds back into microaggressions, as these actions tend to make feel as though they aren’t a part of the group.

All of this is to say that minority communities face an uphill battle when it comes to combating mental health issues. So, what is there to be done? The main thing is better awareness, both of yourself and others. Making sure that you’re thoughtful with your language, and calling out other people who aren’t, is an excellent first step to lessening racial trauma and mental health issues. While there are many other roadblocks that these communities face, such as barriers to care, we need to start somewhere, and that might as well be with kindness.

Christine M. Crawford, MD, MPH is the Associate Director of Psychiatry Medical Student Education and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at BU School of Medicine. She has authored multiple book chapters on mental health disparities, sociocultural issues in psychiatry as well as peer reviewed publications focusing on major depressive disorder.

Crawford partnered with NAMI to produce a webinar on racism against Black people in the United States, and how that affects mental health. They talk about racial trauma, its effects, and varying solutions amongst other related topics.

You can view the full webinar presentation with Crawford here.

As we’ve discussed, racism, and the language surrounding it, has negative effects on mental health. However, it also has negative effects in the realm of mental healthcare. Imani Faber was born in New York and moved to Germany when she was three. Imani is currently attending Bard College Berlin and is working towards a bachelor’s degree in economics, politics and social thought.

“I was raised in a family that was always painfully aware of the disparities between people of color and whites,” writes Imani. “So learning about the mental health care gap, for me, was just another addition to the pile of injustices I learned about growing up.”

There has always been a substantial gap in the quality of mental health care that people receive, part of the reason being that only 16% of mental health care workers are POC. Ultimately, in order to close this gap, there needs to be more diversity and better understanding within the mental healthcare system.

“For mental health providers or others who want to better serve diverse populations, culturally sensitive care means an understanding of systemic racism,” writes Imani. “From microaggressions to direct discrimination and harassment.”

You can read Imani’s full article and story here.

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