Racial Discrimination, Mental Health and the Black Community

Photo by Marquise Kamanke on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why some people have unfortunate experiences in life, limited opportunities in life, and underprivileged access to health and mental health? Perhaps, you are aware of many reasons, but the most common explanation for such inequalities within mental health is racism. This article will focus on understanding what racial discrimination is, what forms of racial discrimination are experienced by the Black community, and how it can impact mental health and well-being.

What is Racial Discrimination?

Racial discrimination is when someone is treated unfairly because of their race or their perceived race. There are several astonishing facts about racial discrimination, which help us understand the extent of its damage, for example:

  • According to the Department of Education², there were only 15% of Black students represented in student enrolment, whereas there were 35% of Black students who were suspended and 36% of them were expelled.
  • In New York city, police stops involved 88% Black people, while only 10% involved white people³.
  • From 2013 to 2017, white patients in the US received better quality health care than about 40% of Black patients⁴.
  • In the US, Black individuals are twice as likely to be unemployed than white individuals. Once employed, Black individuals earn nearly 25% less than their white counterparts⁵.

Furthermore, it can also exist in the form of institutional racism, which is the joint catastrophe of an organization to provide suitable and specialized services to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.

Origins of Racial Discrimination in the US

In the US, there is a strong history of racial discrimination and institutional racism, which has impacted the Black community for 100s of years. Twelve million African children and adults were handcuffed in ships and sold for labour. This also involved significant violence and deliberate dehumanization, which was all justified using pseudoscience and religion. After the Civil war, more terrorizing began in the US, such as public Lynching, Black people being deprived of their right to vote, and the Jim Crow laws which significantly reduced the quality of education given to Black American children.

That is just a little peek of the ugly history that most Americans acknowledge. Many other things went on, which discriminated against the Black community. For example, Social security was developed in the 1930s to ensure a stable old age for Americans. However, it excluded two-thirds of Black Americans. Moreover, mortgage lending programs were designed after World War II to help Americans buy homes. However, such lending programs were not open to Black Americans because Federal policy said that the presence of a black resident in a neighbourhood reduced the value of the homes. This was done at such an extreme that black Americans were prohibited from borrowing money for a house. Sentencing laws have been unfair too, where poor Black Americans have been put behind bars for consuming a type of cocaine while their white counterparts got away for consuming another.

Mental Health of The Black Community in the US

According to the US HHS Office of Minority Health⁶:

  • 13.4 % of US population identifies as Black and 16% of these have reported having a mental illness (estimated 7 million people).
  • Black Americans are 20% more likely than White Americans to have serious psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Black/African American teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3% v. 6.2%).
  • Black Americans are more likely to be victims of police brutality and other violent crimes, thus, they are more likely to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Black Americans are also twice as likely to be diagnosed with Schizophrenia.

Impact of Racial Discrimination on Mental Health of Black Americans

Many researchers in the field of mental health have found that racial discrimination worsens mental health of individuals. Racial discrimination can lead to mental health issues in the following ways⁷:

• heightened negative psychological stress response; this includes poor coping skills

• increased physiological stress response, such as shaking and sweating

• hyper-vigilance; this is increased anxiety and exhaustion as individuals are always on a lookout for something terrible that might happen.

• increased participation in unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse

• higher level of nervousness when going in public places

• increased anger

A recent research study⁸ investigated if racial discrimination among Black adolescents predicted their mental health outcomes. The findings from this study showed that racial discrimination predicted higher anxiety and depression among Black male students. They also showed that such a form of perceived racial discrimination is more harmful to men than woman. Another research study⁹ showed that every day but not significant experiences of discrimination, such as micro-aggressions and micro-insults, are associated with a social anxiety disorder for African-Americans, Caribbean Blacks, and non-Hispanic whites.

Another fascinating research¹⁰ explored the impact of reported racism on the mental health of African Americans over one year. This study was conducted in a predominantly Black neighbourhood of New York City. The findings from this long-term study showed that racism leads to an increase in psychological distress such as anxiety. It also leads to an increase in depression symptoms over one year and caused more days in poor mental health.

We can see that racism and racial discrimination is significantly impacting the mental health of the Black community in the U.S. The U.S. cannot deny what is plainly before its eyes. Let’s talk and continue to have an open discussion about the struggles the black community has been facing for generations. You can get involved by listening openly and without prejudice, we can continue to thrive together.

By Maleeha Abbas


  1. Levine, D.S., Himle, J.A., Abelson, J.M., Matusko, N., Dhawan, N., Taylor, R.J. (2014). Discrimination and social anxiety disorder among African-Americans, Caribbean blacks, and non-Hispanic whites. J Nerv Ment Dis, 202(3):224–30.doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000000099

2. Assari, S., Moazen-Zadeh, E., Caldwell, C.H., & Zimmerman, M.A. (2017). Racial Discrimination during Adolescence Predicts Mental Health Deterioration in Adulthood: Gender Differences among Blacks. Front. Public Health 5, 104. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00104

3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Mental Health. (2016). Mental health and African Americans. Retrieved from https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=24

4. Pascoe, E.A., Smart-Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull, 135(4):531. doi:10.1037/a0016059

5. US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. “2015–16 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Climate and Safety.” https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf. Accessed June. 12, 2020.

6. New York Civil Liberties Union. “Stop-and-Frisk Data.” https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-data. Accessed June. 12, 2020.

7. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. “National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report.” https://www.ahrq.gov/sites/default/files/wysiwyg/research/findings/nhqrdr/2018qdr-final.pdf. Accessed June. 12, 2020

8. Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. “Discrimination in the Job Market in the United States.” https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/discrimination-job-market-united-states. Accessed June. 12, 2020

9. Kwate, N. O., & Goodman, M. S. (2015). Cross-sectional and longitudinal effects of racism on mental health among residents of Black neighbourhoods in New York City. American journal of public health, 105(4), 711–718. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302243

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