The Impact of Structural Racism on Mental Health (May 2022)

Sarah Jimenez, LCSW, PhD on May 01, 2023 in Mood and Feelings

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Although mental health conditions are among the most prevalent health conditions worldwide because of stigma and discrimination, these conditions have often existed on the margins of society and in the shadows. For the past few years, the combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing awareness of racial injustice have thrust mental health issues into the spotlight. Everyone has been touched directly by mental health conditions, either through personal lived experiences or through close interpersonal relationships with loved ones who experience mental health problems.

According to the World Health Organization, increased stress, grief, and social isolation caused by the pandemic have led to a massive 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression, conditions that were already highly prevalent before the pandemic. Additionally, the growing focus on the importance of racial justice in the United States has highlighted the fact that perceived discrimination is closely associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and alcohol misuse. These data help us to understand the role of inclusion, belonging, and connection in promoting and sustaining positive mental wellbeing. And they remind us that there is “no health without mental health.”

As a society, we must collectively decide to prioritize the promotion of mental health while acknowledging that access to treatment and recovery is not equitable in the United States or worldwide. In his State of The Union address in March, President Biden unveiled a plan for unprecedented reform and investments in young people and marginalized populations to promote mental health and effectively improve access to mental health care and treatment for all Americans. This is a hopeful first step toward ensuring that everyone in our country has the opportunity to live mentally healthy lives.

Connection, belonging, and support are critical to good mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has highlighted the importance of connection, as they are amplifying the message of “Together for Mental Health” as part of Mental Health Awareness month. Here at UC Davis Health, an important next step in cultivating stronger connection involves deepening our understanding about the impact of structural racism on our lives and in our work.

The Aspen Institute defines structural racism as “a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with 'whiteness' and disadvantages associated with 'color' to endure and adapt over time.” However, these systems are populated by people, and thus, individuals need to commit to a practice of education and self-reflection to become anti-racist and to begin to dismantle structural racism in the systems in which we all interact.

Sarah Jimenez is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Berkeley, CA.

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