NAMI: Kindness can help improve minority mental health
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, now is a perfect time to try and correct that by addressing how racism and the language used around it can affect mental health.
To start, those who face racism are more likely to develop mental health issues. A UCLA study found that people age 18-28 who frequently faced racist speech or behavior were 25% more likely to develop mental illness or 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 a large contributing factor. In a survey by the American Psychological Association, it's 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 group 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 by 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 six key ways that racial microaggressions can present themselves.
1. Invisibility - Being treated as lower in status, viewpoints not being considered.
2. Criminality - Treated as aggressive or dangerous.
3. Low achieving - Assuming one's racial background determines how well they will do.
4. Sexualization - Being treated in an overly sexual manner.
5. Foreigner - Being made to feel as though one doesn't belong.
6. Environmental invalidations - Negative ideas about one's race from observation that members of this racial group don't hold prominence in work, school or government.
While there may be 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 them feel as though they aren't part of the group.
Racism and language surrounding it have negative effects on mental health. Racism also has negative effects in the realm of mental health care. Imani Faber was born in New York and moved to Germany when she was 3. Imani currently attends Bard College Berlin and is working toward 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," Imani wrote. "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 is that only 16% of mental health care workers are people of color. Ultimately, in order to close this gap, there needs to be more diversity and better understanding within the mental health care system.
"For mental health providers or others who want to better serve diverse populations, culturally sensitive care means an understanding of systemic racism," Imani wrote. "From microaggressions to direct discrimination and harassment."
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.
Bart Brewer is the newsletter editor for Clackamas County's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read more about Imani Faber's story at nami.orgBlogsNAMI-BlogJuly-2020The-Mental-Health-Care-Gap.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.