Systemic Racism and Black Mental Health Struggles

Systemic Racism and Black Mental Health Struggles


In the August 5, 2020 edition of The Michelle Obama Podcast, the former First Lady disclosed something we have not heard from her before.  She revealed her struggles with mental health related to systemic racism. “I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression. I’m waking up in the middle of the night, because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness… Spiritually, these are not …fulfilling times.”

I have long admired the strength, intelligence, and grace of Michelle Obama.  I am glad to hear her speaking up about these issues. She openly addressed the stigma and isolation regarding mental health struggles, something many of us can relate to at this moment. It is particularly helpful to me that Michelle Obama was willing to share something so personal. I feel it creates a sense of humanity and connection. Our fears are real and there are no easy answers to diminish them.

Senator Cory Booker

COVID mental health woes

By now, most of us have heard the warnings about mental health issues arising from the pandemic. The U.S. Census found 1 in 3 Americans are facing anxiety or depression as compared to 1 in 10 a year ago. Nearly 4 in 10  people say worry and stress from COVID-19 have had a negative impact on their mental health.

American Psychological Association Associate Director for Practice Research and Policy Lynn Bufka discussed the particular problems Americans are facing. “Of course, people are going to feel some degree of stress right now. This is a new situation… We don’t have a roadmap. We don’t know where to go with this. Of course, any time we face that level of ambiguity and uncertainty, it can be stressful for individuals.”

Racial strife takes a toll

Many Americans are beginning to realize that long established and systemic racism is part of our country’s makeup. Michelle Obama points out that for Americans of color, other concerns compounds stress even more. “Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”

Public figures such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker have disclosed that they have directly experienced effects of racism. “I’m still very conscious when I’m not dressed like a senator, and even when I am, that I still could be one misunderstanding away from a very bad incident… And I almost feel – and it’s not the best word – but I almost feel a sense of shame…  Here I am, 30 years of adulthood since Rodney King, and the lessons that I got in my teenage years from African American adults who wanted to make me afraid of police for my own safety, who wanted to teach me coping mechanisms… I feel just a sense of profound regret that I’m having to have those conversations with young black men in my life… And that is really hurtful to me, that we’ve had three decades since that horrific beating of a Black man who was so demonized, so stripped of his humanity.”

Hurting emotionally and physically

Nearly 90% of Black people believe that racism is prevalent, harmful, and real. One in four Black Americans will experience an anxiety disorder. Black parents have come forward to express their own fears and anxiety about their loved ones’ safety. They must warn their children about dangers that many white Americans simply cannot understand.

Black Americans carry higher risks for chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Racism, however, is rarely mentioned in connection with this. Experts have found that racism effects blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow, and muscle tone.

Racial battle fatigue

In 2003, Dr. William A. Smith, Professor in Education and Ethnic Studies (African American Studies Division) and Department Chair, University of Utah, coined the term “racial battle fatigue.”  This describes anxiety and worry, hypervigilance, headaches, increased heart rate and blood pressure associated with chronic exposure to racism. While recurring news stories and images of racially charged violence are upsetting to all, the levels of stress experienced by Black Americans is immense. Each new incident reverberates down a long hallway of painful memories. To be afraid to walk home from your job or that your child will experience Driving While Black or Running While Black is unique for Blacks, and there are no easy fixes.

Many recent studies and interviews have indicated the serious consequences of this stress. “Racism is considered a fundamental cause of adverse health outcomes for racial/ethnic minorities and racial/ethnic inequities in health.” (Williams, Lawrence, & Davis, 2019) Racial trauma can involve a “negative, sudden, and uncontrollable experience or crisis.” Alternately, it can involve an “ongoing physical or psychological threat that produces feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and helplessness.” (Ponds, 2013)

Systemic racism causes poor living conditions

Senator Booker points out that the impact of systemic racism goes far beyond direct violence.  “The violence against Black people is not just what we witness with George Floyd.  It’s that race is still the biggest indicator of whether or not you are going to live near a toxic site, breathe dirty air, drink dirty water. Racism is the most profound indicator of what kind of education you get, about how economically fragile your family might be, about whether you’re food insecure.”

Then there’s the pandemic. NPR’s May 2020 analysis finds that in 32 states plus Washington D.C., African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at rates higher than their proportion of the population. “In 21 states, it’s substantially higher, more than 50% above what you would expect. For example, in Wisconsin, at least 141 African Americans have died, representing 27% of all deaths in a state where just 6% of the state’s population is Black.”

It is positive that public figures like Michelle Obama and Cory Booker are speaking out about their personal experiences. We can learn a lot by listening to them. As clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, PhD, says, we must “refuse to allow this subject to fall back in the shadows.”


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