Civil Liberties

6 Ways White Supremacy Takes a Toll on the Mental Health of Black People

This is why black people are 20 times more likely to report serious psychological distress than white people.

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Officially, Kalief Browder died as a result of suicide at his family’s home in the Bronx this weekend. Yet it’s not a stretch to say the racist criminal justice system that locked him up for more than three years without a trial was likely the main culprit for the young man’s death. In 2010, the cops arrested 16-year-old Browder after another teen accused the boy of robbing him of his backpack. Browder has always denied the accusations. His family couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail, so Browder was forced to stay in Rikers for three years. While there, he was held in solitary confinement for 400 days, beaten by jail guards, abused by other inmates and attempted suicide several times.  

Black people make up just 14 percent of the U.S. population, yet 38 percent of those locked up, according to a recent report; 60 percent of those in solitary confinement are black. A fact sheet from Solitary Watch reports that solitary confinement can create or exacerbate mental health issues. Browder never had a chance.

This is what white supremacy does. It disproportionately targets black people and uses its system (jails, police, unsupportive work environments, white privilege at universities and other institutions) to break them. But it is not just about jails. Even young black kids who attend pool parties are at risk. As AlterNet previously reported, Officer Eric Casebolt from the McKinney Police Department was captured on video violently putting 15-year-old Dajerria Becton on the ground and pulling his gun on other teens who came to her aid. The psychological trauma from that experience will surely follow her for some time. That is part of the quintessential state violence that black people endure on a daily basis.

Racism, in all of its forms, takes a heavy toll on black people’s mental health, according to practicing therapists and psychologists who spoke with AlterNet. “Research has shown that racism has negative psychological consequences for African Americans such as increased symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress,” says Erlanger Turner, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. He was one of three mental health professionals, along with Kira Banks, assistant professor of psychology at Saint Louis University, and Lisa Jones, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York City, who spoke to AlterNet about the ways in which racism can literally make black people ill.

“While racism comes in various forms, be it through personal experience or media portrayals, black people tend to feel hopeless and give up mentally, often feeling as if they are not good enough,” Jones said. “Living in a society where there is constant portrayal of racial injustice (forms of microaggressions, ongoing discrimination, unarmed black people killed by law enforcement) can lead to chronic feelings of despair. Many, at times, will feel like racial issues will never be solved. Such negative and consistent thoughts can trigger severe depressive symptoms.”

In 2011, the American Psychological Association released a study that found a correlation between racism black people self-reported and subsequent mental and physical health issues.

“The relationship between perceived racism and self-reported depression and anxiety is quite robust, providing a reminder that experiences of racism may play an important role in the health disparities phenomenon,” Alex Pieterse, lead author of the study, said. “For example, African Americans have higher rates of hypertension, a serious condition that has been associated with stress and depression.”

Here are some of the upsetting realities of daily life that black people experience that are harmful to their mental health.

1. Videos and photos of black people being killed by police.

When the nation saw video of Officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back, in N. Charleston, SC, in April, it struck a particular emotional chord for black people because we know such a scenario could happen to us. It doesn’t help that media plays such videos repeatedly without any regard to how mentally difficult it is to consume them. At the time of the shooting, conversations on social media discussed the mental health precautions people should take after viewing such violent deaths.

“While video footage might be the spark in an ‘aha’ moment for some and the needed ‘proof,' for others, repeated exposure to violent race-based acts can negatively affect mental health,” Banks said. “Intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, anger, avoidance, numbing, anxiety and depressive symptoms are a few of the potential outcomes. We should be careful not to desensitize ourselves to the pain or perpetuate the dehumanization of black lives. I'm not advocating you ignore or put on blinders, but take care of yourself and know the risks of repeated exposure.”

2. Parenting a black son.

No amount of success in society can spare a black person the barrel of an officer’s gun. A few months ago, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a piece about how his son was held at gunpoint on Yale University’s campus, where he is enrolled as a junior. The young man had done nothing wrong; he fit the description of a burglary suspect, according to Blow’s account of what took place. As Blow wrote:

Why was a gun drawn first? Why was he not immediately told why he was being detained? Why not ask for ID first?

What if my son had panicked under the stress, having never had a gun pointed at him before, and made what the officer considered a “suspicious” movement? Had I come close to losing him? Triggers cannot be unpulled. Bullets cannot be called back.

My son was unarmed, possessed no plunder, obeyed all instructions, answered all questions, did not attempt to flee or resist in any way. This is the scenario I have always dreaded: my son at the wrong end of a gun barrel, face down on the concrete. I had always dreaded the moment that we would share stories about encounters with the police in which our lives hung in the balance, intergenerational stories of joining the inglorious “club.”

When that moment came, I was exceedingly happy I had talked to him about how to conduct himself if a situation like this ever occurred. Yet I was brewing with sadness and anger that he had to use that advice.

Blow went on to point out that there is no way to “earn your way out” of this danger.

Every black parent fears that an officer will overreact and fire a bullet at their child (or themselves) that can’t be called back. It’s a stress that is very germane to the black experience and parents often teach their kids how best to deal with it.

“Due to actions of police officers, many have increased fear, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle responses, or avoidance behaviors,” says clinical psychologist Turner. This is why most black people fear and don't trust the police. Over the past year, black people made up 41 percent of unarmed people killed by police, despite being just 14 percent of the population.

3. Consistently not being valued or being abused at work.

A 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey reports that black people endured the second highest rate of bullying behind Hispanics. A recent example of workplace bullying comes out of Portland, OR, where two current and two former black employees of Daimler Trucks North America filed a lawsuit against the company claiming racial discrimination. Hangman’s nooses being displayed at work was one of the many allegations made by the plaintiffs.

“Although being devalued in your work environment is not overt racism, subtle forms of racism called microaggressions (daily interactions that devalue or demean ethnic minorities) do exist and can affect self-esteem, motivation, and success,” Erlanger Turner says. “Microaggressions are problematic because they send messages to African Americans that their experiences as are not valid. This may be one reason why you see people insisting on building black-owned businesses and programs to counteract the negative impacts of microaggressions.”

But what if you don’t have the capital to start your own business? Yep, there’s racism in pursuing business loans, too. It’s hard for many black people to get a win on the job.

4. Microaggressions on college and university campuses.

The racist “There will never be a nigger SAE" incident that got Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Oklahoma University chapter kicked off campus is far from unique. For decades black students have faced racism at America’s colleges and universities. Whether it is a noose hanging from a tree, racist costume parties or being excluded from Greek life, black students experience many instances of aggression and exclusion that can cause serious mental health issues. A 2014 Voices of Diversity study found that students who endure racism on campus deal with confusion, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety.

At #NotJustSAE on Twitter you can read a wide range of racist incidents people of color experience on campuses, and some describe how their mental health has suffered as a result. Some of the students said being mocked because of their race made them feel isolated, unsupported and attacked for being who they are. 

These experiences can challenge how black people in racially combative non-black spaces manage relationships.

“Black people have to be on guard and socialize with family, friends, co-workers who may be of a different race on a daily basis,” clinical social worker Lisa Jones said. Acts of racism can affect a black person in how they interact with others on a personal level, which can lead to irritability, avoidance, anger and mistrust.

5. Being attacked by police for exercising our civil rights.

News reports out of Ferguson, Mo., where unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a local cop, captured images of protesters being tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. The bravery of many of the protesters has been featured in major publications, such as the New York Times Magazine. But the day-to-day protesting black people engaged in took a toll on their mental health, as AlterNet reported.

Johnetta Elzie, a protester who was tear-gassed at least nine times during the height of the Ferguson protests last August, told AlterNet that her interactions with the police led to her being diagnosed with PTSD.

“It was just crazy for me to see the police responding to us like we were almost at war. Only we weren’t armed,” Elzie, a native of St. Louis, told AlterNet. “There was the constant threat of almost dying. In August, I thought I almost died at least twice when we were on the run from police.”

According to Marva Robinson, a clinical psychologist and president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists, the trauma that comes with seeing a dead body in the street after a police shooting and the personal sacrifices protesters made to be in Ferguson will have long-term mental health consequences.

“People are shocked when I say that we’re going to be dealing with this for at least another decade,” Robinson told AlterNet in a previous interview. “Post-traumatic stress disorder has very long-term effects, especially when people don’t seek counseling. Not only does it have a long-term effect, but it can lead into other mental illnesses such as depression, general anxiety disorder and substance abuse. So it branches off into other illnesses as a result of this one volatile event that can affect people for the next five, 10, 15 years. Certainly affecting the way they view law enforcement officers.”

6. Treating black girls in school like criminals.

Ninety percent of all girls subject to expulsion in New York City during the 2011-2012 school year were black, while no white girls were suspended, according to a 2015 report titled, "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” The report, which also found that black girls in Boston schools fared no better, delves into how destructive such harsh discipline is on black girls:  

“Girls who are suspended face a significantly greater likelihood of dropping out of school  and are more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system. The long-term consequences of dropping out are particularly troubling for black as well as Latina girls, including a greater prevalence of low-wage work and unemployment. Because detachment from school carries so many negative consequences, efforts to reverse these patterns must be informed by a closer look at how girls experience the push and pull factors that shape their attachment to school.”

Even as adolescents, black girls must grapple with the cruelties of racism that will cause a wide range of socioeconomic consequences that could have harmful long-term mental health consequences.

"Being disproportionately targeted for disciplinary action can lead to internalizing those beliefs,” psychology professor Kira Banks said. “Negative beliefs about oneself and racial group has been correlated with increased negative body image, drinking as a coping mechanism, and psychological distress."

Bottom line: It is hard being black in America at any age

In March, AlterNet's piece "10 Things Black People Have to Fear That White People Don’t," outlined the ways black people are consistently criminalized. It is not surprising that such unfair treatment can lead to symptoms of hopelessness, anxiety and fears that cause mental health problems. Black people are 20 times more likely to report having serious psychological distress than white people, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health. How can black people deal with this?

Finding ways to heal is crucial, as black people fight the white supremacist structures while maintaining their mental health. One resource is the Association of Black Psychologists, which may have a local branch near your city or town. The national organization hosts the Emotional Emancipation Initiative, a worldwide movement for the healing, wellness, and empowerment of black people. In the St. Louis area, some members of ABP offer pro-bono mental health counseling. Other ABP branches may offer similar services. 

It’s impossible to deal with the stresses of racism all by ourselves. Black people will continue to bear the heaviest burden of American racism, but we don’t have to suffer while we fight it.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.