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  • Writer's pictureRMTC Team

The Negative Impacts of Racism on Mental Health

Impacts of racism

As we continue to celebrate black history month, it’s important for us that we address the undeniable fact that racism is a mental health problem. Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour are disproportionately exposed to trauma related to racism, making them susceptible to related mental illnesses and stress.  


This blog post aims to educate readers, in particular white readers, on the impacts that racism has. It also aims to provide you with an overview of how racism operates and what we can do to combat it. At the end of this post are some local resources for Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour.  


NOTE: Throughout this blog post you will find a series of hyperlinked words that will take you to further reading on specific terms and topics related to racism and oppression. I encourage you to click on the links if you come across unfamiliar terms and to educate yourself beyond what is presented here. Racism is a topic that affects all of us. If you are white, you have a social responsibility to learn how to address racism and examine your own white privilege and relationship to whiteness.  


What is Racism?  


Racism is defined by the Oxford Reference Library as “the inability or refusal to recognize the rights, needs, dignity, or value of people of particular races or geographical origins. More widely, the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples.”  


Racism can also be defined as the actions of discrimination and prejudice by individuals, communities, or institutions against a person or people based on their actual or perceived membership in a particular racial or ethnic group. 


“The category of race may itself be challenged, as implying an inference from trivial superficial differences of appearance to allegedly significant underlying differences of nature; increasingly evolutionary evidence suggests that the dispersal of one original people into different geographical locations is a relatively recent and genetically insignificant matter.” (Oxford).  


What is White Supremacy?   


White supremacy is a system of oppression by which whiteness and white privilege is institutionalized as well as “the historical, social, political and economic systems and structures that contribute to its continued dominance.” (York University).  


White supremacy functions as a political, economic, and cultural system in which white people overwhelmingly control power and material resources. Whether we are conscious of it or not, white superiority and entitlement are widespread and racist politics, procedures, and interpersonal relations are enacted daily across social, governmental, and educational institutions and interpersonal social settings.  


White supremacy functions to privilege white people and disempower and oppress black, Indigenous, and other people of colour. It violently excludes them from gaining the same social, economic, and cultural powers and material resources as white people, to the benefit of white people. It functions in tandem with systemic and institutionalized racism (ex. racist immigration policies, racial profiling in the criminal justice system, environmental injustice, etc.) to uphold white privilege.  


Overt and Covert Racism 


There are two modes in which racism operates, overt and covert. Overt racism is what most people think of when they think of racism; it is the ‘in-your-face’ brand of racism that is unashamed of itself and explicit in its form. Examples of overt racism include obvious hate crimes such as racist vandalism, racial harassment, using racist slurs, wearing blackface, and physical and sexual violence both at interpersonal and systemic levels.  


Covert racism is the less distinguishable, more ‘subtle’ form of racism, and is the most prevalent form of racism in everyday society. Examples of covert racism can include being passed over for job opportunities because of your race, being racially profiled in stores, microaggressions such as tone policing and reinforcing stereotypes, cultural appropriation in fashion, art, and design, and white silence.  


How Does Racism Impact the Mental Health of Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Colour? 


Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour are constantly exposed to different forms of interpersonal and systemic racism in their daily lives. As racialized people are victimized by and exposed to racism and racial oppression and violence, they can internalize the negative messages that racism sends them. This is called internalized racism. 


As Donna Bivens says, “Internalized racism has its own systemic reality and its own negative consequences in the lives and communities of people of color. More than just a consequence of racism, then, internalized racism is a systemic oppression in reaction to racism that has a life of its own. In other words, just as there is a system in place that reinforces the power and expands the privilege of white people [white supremacy], there is a system in place that actively discourages and undermines the power of people and communities of color and mires us in our own oppression. […] Because internalized racism is a systemic oppression, it must be distinguished from human wounds like self-hatred or "low self-esteem," to which all people are vulnerable. It is important to understand it as systemic because that makes it clear that it is not a problem simply of individuals. It is structural.” (Bivens, 44).  


In addition to internalized racism, prolonged exposure to racist harm can lead to racial trauma. Racial trauma refers to the emotional impact of stress related to racism, racial discrimination, and race-related stressors, such as being affected by stereotypes, hurtful comments, or barriers to advancement. This causes mental health issues such as chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder.  


Did You Know?  

“Experiences of racial discrimination are consistently linked with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance misuse and PTSD, as well as physical ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Black Americans, for instance, are about twice as likely as White Americans to develop dementia.” – The Washington Post 


Cultural and Intergenerational Trauma  


Cultural and intergenerational trauma are present in many communities directly impacted by racism. This is due to the ongoing impacts from discriminatory policies and practices both past and present. 


 Alexander suggests that cultural trauma is what, “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”  


The effects of racist immigration policies, recent histories of segregation, chattel slavery, colonization, the 60’s scoop, residential schools, the Chinese head tax, Japanese internment camps, and other histories of state-sanctioned racist violence and cultural and physical genocide have all have lasting impacts on communities of colour far beyond the ‘end’ of any of the events themselves.   


Often this is spoken of in terms of intergenerational trauma, where the harm experienced by members of an impacted group unconsciously pass down the impacts of the trauma to future generations. People experiencing intergenerational trauma may experience symptoms, reactions, patterns, and emotional and psychological effects from trauma experienced by previous generations (not limited to just parents or grandparents). 


Racism in the Field of Mental Health: Barriers to Access  


Health institutions such as hospitals and therapy clinics are not immune to racism, in fact there is a long history of racial discrimination that depended on medical institutions to sustain itself. For example, practices of slavery were often justified by ‘pseudo-science’ that claimed inconsequential physical differences between white Europeans and black Africans people made black Africans sub-human. 


To this day, people who are racialized face discrimination in medicine based on inconsequential or perceived racial difference. For example, when being diagnosed, black men more likely to have their psychotic symptoms emphasized by clinicians and their symptoms of depression overlooked.  


Additionally, youth who are racialized and have mental health issues are more likely to be labelled as ‘troubled’ or problem youth when acting out. They are also more likely to be redirected towards juvenile detention where white youth may only be required to attend mandatory counselling or community service.  


Other barriers to mental health treatment include lower numbers of black and indigenous therapists, misunderstandings of mental health problems by faith leaders, and other stigmas around mental health 



Black young people in Canada wait twice as long as other young Canadians to access mental health services.  


Racialized people in Canada are heterogenous in their origins and cite experiences of racism, discrimination and lack of culturally competent care as barriers to accessing effective mental health care. 


They are less likely to voluntarily access mental health services in Canada and are more likely to enter care through a hospital emergency department or through the criminal justice system. 


Once racialized people do access mental health supports in Canada, they are more likely to have negative experiences and discuss how their experiences of race-based discrimination are discounted – particularly when they are consumers of mental health care. 


What White People can do to Combat Racism and Become Anti-Racist Allies 


  1. Educate Yourself 


You’re reading this so that’s a good start! Try clicking on the links throughout this blog to dive a little deeper and then keep going! It’s not the job of your black friends to teach you about racism, go out there and learn for yourself. Take a course and if you are going to learn directly from black, indigenous, and other people of colour make sure you compensate them for their hard work!  


  1. Hold Yourself Accountable  


Every white person has been racist. YES, every one of us. It doesn’t matter if it was unconscious or conscious, covert, or overt, when you are racist and you cause harm, it is important to hold yourself accountable. Say sorry to the person you hurt without making excuses for yourself, then commit to doing better in the future. Learning how to hold yourself accountable when you cause harm not only helps to fight racism but will help you in other relationships too. 


  1. Hold Other White People Accountable for their Racism.  


When your friends, family, and coworkers are being racist or reaffirming harmful racist tropes and stereotypes, call them out on it! A person of colour doesn’t need to be in the room for you to have the conversation, in fact sometimes it’s precisely when they aren’t that you can make the most headway. For example, don’t be afraid to let your uncle know it’s not okay to say [insert racist thing here] at the Sunday night dinner table.  


  1. Learn to be a Better Ally  


There has been a lot written on what it means to be a good ally. Check out resources like the Guide to Allyship to learn ways you can be a better ally in the fight against racism.   


What Can Racialized People Do to Take Care of their Mental Health?  


  1. Practice Self-Care 


Everyone can benefit from practicing intentional self-care. Taking time to do little things for yourself even when life is good helps us to build resilience for when life is hard. Things like regular exercise, taking a break for leisure time, eating healthy, and journaling are all some examples of ways you can practice self-care.   


  1. Connect with Your Communities and Embrace Your Ethnicity  


Being around white people all the time can be exhausting, especially if you live in a predominately white neighbourhood or city. Take time to seek out other members of your ethnic and/or racial community who understand on the same personal level as you, the impacts that racism has and who share the same or similar cultural roots and practices. There have been multiple studies that show people who are connected to their ethic community live happier and healthier lives overall. This can be especially healing for Indigenous and immigrant communities.  


There are several organizations in the Region of Waterloo dedicated to fostering community. See the list of resources below for just a few of them! 



As HelpGuide.Org puts it, it’s not uncommon or unreasonable to be angered by racism and injustice; but it’s also unsafe to vent that anger to white people and perpetrators (like white police officers) directly. They suggest channeling anger constructively through activities like joining a social justice organization, working it out through a creative pursuit like poetry or painting, or diffusing anger with a bit of humor.  


If none of those feel like your style, there are also rage rooms that let you vent your anger by smashing some stuff up in a safe environment.  




Racism is a critical mental health issue and the responsibility of everyone to address. It’s important to have this discussion not just during Black History Month, but every month. White people need to join the conversation and we need to do our part to be better allies and dismantle racism both in our personal and public lives.  


Resources for Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Colour in Waterloo Region 














Danny is an Admin Assistant at Relationship Matters Therapy Centre. They have their MA in Cultural Analysis and Social Theory from Wilfrid Laurier University.  



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