Dear Dr. Levister: I feel helpless, disgusted, angry, and generally down in the dumps since watching the aftermath of the South Carolina church shootings unfold in the media. Could there be a correlation? E.K.
Dear E.K.: Racism has plagued this country since its inception and continues to be one of the greatest problems our society faces. The non-white population in America has continually been subjected to individual and institutional forms of racism despite the efforts of civil rights groups and political leaders to eliminate discrimination in all its forms.
The effects of racism on one’s physical and mental health is a prevailing question particularly in the aftermath of the shooting at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the recent incidents involving police where race was a factor. What’s clear is that many black Americans experience what psychologists call “race-based trauma,” says Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville.
While researchers are still trying to understand exactly how this phenomenon operates, Williams says it’s clear that African-Americans are hit hard by incidents that recall the country’s ugly history of institutionalized racism. And such trauma can occur, even vicariously, after events like the recent church attack in Charleston. “
Studies show for some, it’s not the racist incident that causes stress, distress or trauma; it’s the helplessness in the face of the incident. This can result in a variety of anxiety-like symptoms such as distress, tenseness or loss of appetite.
A growing literature shows discrimination raises the risk of many emotional and physical problems. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality. Two journals – The American Journal of Public Health and The DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race — dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field’s leaders, terms “embodied inequality.”
Some people become preoccupied with things that are not typically worrisome. One of the most common coping mechanisms is anger. And that can feed into riots and vandalism. That’s a totally normal response to … persistent oppression and racism.
The data are clear that experiencing racism can affect people’s health. What’s important now, is trying to figure out ways to reduce discrimination so that it doesn’t hurt African-Americans’ lives and mental well-being.