Racism is a Mental Health Issue

October 14, 2020

None of us is immune from trauma and the emotional and physical toll it takes. But some of us are immune from a specific kind of trauma: racism.

As a white man, I am, of course, someone who has never lived with the daily stress that comes from enduring, responding to, and guarding against racist acts or the systemic racism that permeates our culture. I never had to wonder if I was passed over for a promotion because I do not have the right skin color. I never had to watch my child tear up as I give ‘the talk’ about how to protect against police brutality. In this, and many other ways, I am privileged.

But that privilege does not make me or the organization I lead, Wyandot BHN, exempt from doing everything possible to confront the unique and tragic effects of racism in our community.

This work begins with making sure everyone in our community understands these effects. For far too long, the trauma that racism sows has not received the attention it deserves--not from our culture at large or even from those of us who deliver mental health services. A simple Google search will reveal, for example, that many of our mainstream health and mental health organizations have only begun to draw attention to this issue in the last two to three years. Change is long overdue, and those of us who lead these organizations owe it to our communities to provide care and treatment that is informed by the reality that racism is a serious mental health issue.

To understand how serious, consider this policy statement published last year by the American Academy of Pediatricians. In it, they note that the racism a pregnant mother experiences causes stress that is passed on to her child, even before birth: “This transforms how the brain and body respond to stress, resulting in short- and long-term health impacts on achievement and mental and physical health. We see the manifestations of this stress as preterm births and low birthweights in newborns to subsequent development of heart disease, diabetes and depression as children become adults.” (For more research on the topic, see this review by Mental Health America.)

As Wyandotte County’s community mental health center, we have the special task of serving everyone who seeks our care and treatment. But our responsibilities are not limited to providing individual services. We also must respond to broad social issues that sow trauma, such as racism, and identify ways to address them. This is especially critical in a community as diverse as Wyandotte, which has no majority ethnic group.

A unique Wyandot BHN program called Alive & Thrive Wyandotte County is taking steps to do just that. Alive & Thrive is a network of organizations dedicated to building a trauma-informed and resilient community. Although its work is not limited to addressing the trauma that people of color face, it is impossible to confront community-wide trauma without making the issue of promoting racial justice a top priority.

Earlier this year, in the midst of the protests, Alive & Thrive organized a series of virtual community meetings to learn from individuals and organizations about what it could do to address racism in our community. These meetings gave birth to a Trauma-Informed Policy Task Force that will advocate for policies that prevent trauma and promote healing in Wyandotte County. Among other things, the Task Force, consisting of individual community members and representatives from various organizations, will ask policymakers to consider whether the policies they adopt help communities of color heal from the historic or generational trauma they have experienced.

Of course, this is just a beginning, a first step. The effects of racism we’re confronting today have a tortured, complex, and tragic history—in our community and across the country. It will require more than a few conversations or policy changes to alter the course set by that legacy. We’re engaged in a process, one where we build on the lessons learned from previous generations and, hopefully, create a better world for our children. Understanding racism as a mental health issue is an important step—one that I invite you to take along with me.