Naomi Torres-Mackie Ed.M., Ph.D.

Underdog Psychology

How Racist Messages Harm Physical and Mental Health

The APA president weighs in and sets an example for the field.

Posted Aug 09, 2019

Overt racism is on the rise in the United States, on both individual and structural levels. A striking example of its structural manifestation is the recent barrage of race-based comments made by the current White House Administration.

Within the last few weeks, Donald Trump called on women of color in Congress to "go back to where they came from" (three were born in the United States, and the fourth is a naturalized citizen), described an entire urban center as “rat infested,” and held rallies propagating us-versus-them rhetoric.

In response, the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Rosie Phillips Davis, acknowledged this in a that reads:

“Statements such as, ‘Go back where you came from’ or ‘Send her back’ can cause pervasive harm to the health and mental health of people of color across the nation. Psychological science has demonstrated that racism can cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma. Racism has been shown to have negative cognitive and behavioral effects on both children and adults and to increase anxiety, depression, self-defeating thoughts and avoidance behaviors. I personally understand the harmful impact of such statements and implore my fellow citizens to think carefully before they speak because words have measurable consequences. This is not who we are as Americans.”

Dr. Phillips Davis’ assertions are backed by decades of research indicating the deleterious effects of racist messages on physical, emotional, and mental health. The understanding in the field is that racism causes a unique type of stress, and this stress has a profound impact across areas of functioning.

Some mental health correlates of racism include anxiety, decreased self-esteem, lowered self-worth, and depression (e.g., McNeilly et al., 1996; Taylor & Turner, 2002). In the realm of physical health, connections have been established between experiences of racism and hypertension, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and adverse birth outcomes (e.g., Jackson et al., 1996; Kaholokula, 2016). The most serious of consequences of racism? Morbidity and mortality (Clark, Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999). Quite literally, racism can kill.  

The messages that are disseminated by those at the top levels of society (i.e., politicians, the media, and heads of institutions) feed down and enable everyday expressions of racism such as racial slurs and microaggressions. This means that individuals in these roles have a great deal of responsibility.

Messages conveyed by the current administration represent an abuse of that responsibility. While it has always been important for individuals to stand up to racism in their daily lives, as American society struggles with divisive social politics, it becomes increasingly important for social institutions to show support for those at the margins of society as Dr. Philips Davis has. Hers was a significant action, particularly because it came from the upper echelon of psychology, the head of the APA.  

Race-based trauma scholar Robert Carter wrote in 2007, “the specific issue of psychological harm from racism should be included in mental health and counseling psychology training programs” (p. 93). As clinicians, researchers, and educators in the field of mental health, we can heed this call and follow Dr. Phillips Davis’ example by continuing to work to remind the public of the harmful effects of racist institutional-level messages.

We can do this with our patients, students, and research participants. It is as important as ever to remain vigilant about allyship and rising to the occasion of offering anti-racist messages to counter those intended to hurt.  

References

Clark, R., Anderson, N., Clark, V. R., & Williams, D. R. (1999). Racism as a stressor for African Americans: A biopsychosocial model. American Psychologist, 54, 805-816.

Jackson, J. S., Brown, T. N., Williams, D. R., Torres, M., Sellers, S. L., & Brown, K. (1996). Racism and the physical and mental health of African Americans: A thirteen year national panel study. Ethnicity & Disease, 6, 132-147.

Kaholokula, J. K. (2016). Racism and physical health disparities. In A. N. Alvarez, C. T. H. Liang, & H. A. Neville (Eds.), Cultural, racial, and ethnic psychology book series. The cost of racism for people of color: Contextualizing experiences of discrimination (pp. 163-188). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

McNeilly, M., Anderson, N. B., Robinson, E. F., McManus, C. F., Armstead, C. A., Clark, R., Pieper, C. F., Simons, C., & Saulter, T. D. (1996). The convergent, discriminant, and concurrent criterion validity of the perceived racism scale: A multidimensional assessment of White racism among African Americans. In R. L. Jones (Ed.), Handbook of tests and measurements for Black populations (Vol. 2, pp. 359-374). Hampton, VA: Cobb and Henry.

Taylor, J., & Turner, R. J. (2002). Perceived discrimination, social stress, and depression in the transition to adulthood. Social Psychology Quarterly, 65(3), 213-225.