Racism and Mental Health: The Psychological Effects

When it comes to racism and mental health, the psychological effects of racism on a teen’s emotional well-being can be troubling. During childhood and adolescence, core beliefs and personality traits form. Being exposed to racism during this developmental stage increases the risk of mental illness, racial trauma, and emotional issues that can persist well into adulthood.  

To get a better insight into racism and mental health, including how teens are affected and the importance of treatment, we turned to Dr. Sharnell Myles, an Embark Behavioral Health vice president with a doctorate in psychology. Myles oversees Embark’s outpatient clinics in Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.   

How Does Racism Affect Mental Health

For racial and ethnic communities in the United States, there can be significant psychological effects of racism. For example, these can include:  


Trauma is an important part of any discussion of racism and mental health. With its deeply rooted prejudices and discriminatory practices, racism can have significant psychological effects on people of color. The trauma people experience can be long-lasting, affecting the mental health of not only the current generation but also those that follow.  

Racial trauma

As shared by Mental Health America, racial trauma, or race-based stress, is the mental or emotional injury caused by experiencing racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.   

“Racism is directly linked with trauma. Oftentimes, race-based trauma goes untreated in many BIPOC communities,” Myles said, referring to Black, Indigenous, and people of color groups. “Race-based trauma responses include depression, increased reactivity, and post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in teens and young adults. You may see these responses exacerbated due to an individual constantly experiencing racism or being exposed to multiple traumatic events and not receiving treatment.”  

Racial trauma can also occur from experiencing traumatic events secondhand, such as when a teen watches a video on social media that shows a racially motivated crime. The 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer, for example, was caught on video and proved traumatic for Black youths around the United States.   

Intergenerational trauma

Psychological effects from racism on mental health can also be seen in stressors transferring from one generation to the next due to intergenerational trauma. The enslavement of Africans and African Americans in the United States, the massacres of Native Americans, and the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are all examples of traumas where the psychological effects of racism are reported generations later.  

People of Color Mental Health Statistics

People of different racial and ethnic groups experience and process the psychological effects from racial discrimination, prejudice, and hostility differently. This means that while racism and mental health can be closely linked in multiple populations, the issues affecting people — including teens — aren’t always the same.   

Following are some key mental health statistics by race.  

Hispanic mental health statistics

A 2021 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) had several key findings about Hispanic mental health. For example, it found that in the past year: 

  • 8.9% of Hispanic youths ages 12-17 and 22.7% of Hispanic young adults ages 18-25 had a substance use disorder. 
  • 22.2% of Hispanic youths ages 12-17 had a major depressive episode. 
  • 12.2% of Hispanic youths ages 12-17 and 12.5% of Hispanic young adults ages 18-25 had serious suicidal thoughts

Myles noted that immigration issues often exacerbate existing Hispanic mental health issues.  

“I’ve worked with many families who unfortunately, due to issues with depression, anxiety, and problematic behaviors, became involved with the juvenile justice system,” she said. “However, they were so afraid they’d be deported that they didn’t show up for court-ordered treatment, which pushed them further into the juvenile system. Most of those kids ended up becoming involved in gangs, which led to even more trauma.”     

Black mental health statistics

Racism greatly affects mental health in the Black community. According to the 2021 SAMHSA study, in the past year: 

  • 6.9% of Black youths ages 12-17 and 24% of Black young adults ages 18-25 had a substance use disorder. 
  • 14% of Black youths ages 12-17 had a major depressive episode. 
  • 11.9% of Black youths ages 12-17 and 10.9% of Black young adults ages 18-25 had serious suicidal thoughts. 

Regarding such challenges for mental health in the Black community, Myles noted, “For many years, race-related trauma has directly impacted Black youths and lessened their trust in the larger system, including the mental health system. The impact is vast and insidious. Therefore, equitable wellness opportunities, such as pediatric and family mental wellness clinics, fiscal support, and stronger advocacy in Black communities, must be mandatory, not optional, to help eliminate disparities. In addition, treatment providers should consider a culturally responsive developmental framework to addressing race-related symptoms while working with Black youths.”  

Native American mental health statistics

According to Mental Health America, among all single-race identifying groups, Native and Indigenous American adults have the highest reported rate of mental health challenges. Issues and symptoms include high rates of PTSD.   

Also of note for Native American mental health: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2020, suicide was the leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native youths ages 10-14 (31.9%) and the second-leading cause for young people ages 15-24 (26%).    

As shared in a Verywell Mind article, racial trauma experienced by Native Americans and Alaska Natives goes back generations. It’s been caused in part by forced assimilation programs that separated children from their families and barred them from participating in spiritual and cultural traditions.   

The Verywell Mind article also shared that today’s issues for Native American mental health include discrimination and harassment in the health care, education, and criminal justice systems, with racism expressed in forms including racial slurs and exclusion.    

AAPI mental health statistics 

A variety of mental health challenges can affect Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), a group that includes Americans of Asian descent and Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands.  

For example, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness has shared regarding AAPI mental health, while the “model minority” stereotype depicts Asian Americans as well adjusted, they, and the AAPI community in general, face mental health challenges — but they don’t always seek help.    

According to NAMI, when it comes to AAPI mental health, Asian American and Pacific Islander families, especially first-generation immigrants, don’t want to “lose face” by admitting they have a mental illness, so they may not admit they need assistance or seek treatment.   

Mental health struggles in the AAPI community can be serious for young people. The CDC has reported that in 2020, suicide was the No. 1 cause of death for Asian American and Pacific Islander youths ages 10-14 (17.7%) and the No. 2 cause for young people ages 15-24 (28.6%). Statistics like these make AAPI mental health a concern for families. 

Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent mental health statistics

According to a recent American Psychologist article, Americans of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent — those from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia — have been understudied, in part because racial classification systems such as the U.S. census typically classify this group as white. As a result, the cumulative racial-ethnic trauma they experience is little understood.   

Nevertheless, the article noted that the MENA American population can experience traumatic factors including historical trauma, pervasive institutional discrimination, and a hostile national context. Furthermore, it shared, “These factors interact with one another and further impact microlevel traumatic experiences related to interpersonal discrimination and microaggressions, as well as struggles with identity and recognition.” 

Additionally underscoring how racism and mental health intersect for the MENA American population is an American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Research Institute report showing that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Arab Americans experienced increased discrimination and hate-based violence. Studies have also shown that the traumatic factors this group experiences can have a negative effect on mental health, including higher levels of anxiety and depression.  

Young woman discusses racism and mental health with her therapist.
Young woman discusses racism and mental health with her therapist.

Culturally Competent Therapists and Therapy 

When it comes to racism and mental health, you can protect your teen’s emotional well-being and help them heal from challenges like racial trauma by connecting them with a culturally competent therapist. Culturally competent therapists understand their clients’ beliefs, backgrounds, and values as they relate to factors including race and ethnicity. This understanding allows them to work through the issues caused by experiences with racism, especially if your teen receives early access to quality treatment.  

To best help teens, Myles noted it’s important for mental health clinics to have multicultural staffs, culturally appropriate mental health services, and therapists who speak multiple languages.  

“I’ve had clients who’ve called me at Embark and said, ‘Hey, we’re a Black family. We’ve experienced community-based trauma for years, and I want a therapist who looks like me — an African American therapist who may not only be familiar with our culture but also the trauma we’ve experienced.’”  

In addition to finding a culturally competent therapist who can address issues like anxiety, depression, and suicide, Myles encouraged teens and families to consider getting therapy in environments where they feel most comfortable. This can be a helpful step when addressing the connection between racism and mental health. 

“Not all therapy needs to happen within four walls,” she said. “That’s what I really like about Embark — we see clients in the clinic and in their home. You can see a client in a park and meet them in their community where they feel safer.”  

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.