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Racism and Mental Health: What You Need to Know 

When it comes to racism and mental health, the 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 licensed psychotherapist and certified trauma professional Sharnell Myles, vice president of Embark at Atlanta North, an outpatient therapy clinic in Georgia for preteens, teens, and young adults ages. 

Racism Facts

Racism describes the prejudice, discrimination, or hostility toward members of a particular racial or ethnic group. Often, these groups have a minority or marginalized status in the community.  

Racism facts show that racism can have a significant impact on the mental health of racial and ethnic communities in the United States. For example, according to the New York State Office of Mental Health

  • Racial trauma can cause physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches as well as sleep issues and memory problems. 
  • People who are affected by racism may feel depressed, anxious, pessimistic, and angry. They may have post-traumatic stress and lack energy. 
  • Experiencing racism may increase the likelihood of alcohol and substance use. 

“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 communities. “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 that have long-term effects — directly and intergenerationally.” 

Young woman discusses racism and mental health with her therapist

Minority Mental Health

Every minority group experiences and processes 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. 

Latino mental health

According to a 2018 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Hispanic mental health statistics indicate:  

  • Major depressive episodes rose from 12.6% to 15.1% among Latino youths ages 12-17 and from 8% to 12.8% for ages 18-25 from 2015 to 2018.   
  • Suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts among those ages 18-25 increased from 2008 to 2018. Serious suicidal thoughts rose from 7% to 8.6%; suicidal plans increased from 2% to 3%; and attempts rose from 1.6% to 2%.  

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 people and mental health

Racism greatly affects mental health in the Black community. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, African American adolescents ages 11-19 years reported higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms after viewing race-related traumatic events online such as viral videos of police shootings.  

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has reported that Black people may be more likely to describe physical symptoms related to mental illness, such as bodily aches and pains. However, health care providers who are not culturally competent might not recognize these symptoms as being connected to a mental health condition. Misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment, NAMI continued, can lead to distrust of mental health professionals.  

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious mental distress than Whites.”  

“But while we may report higher rates,” Myles said, “we are less likely to be provided with quality treatment.”

In addition, she said, “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 Americans and mental health

According to Mental Health America, among all single-race identifying groups, Native and Indigenous American adults have the highest reported rate of mental illnesses. 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 children 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.  

Today, according to the article, Native Americans face discrimination and harassment in the health care, education, and criminal justice systems, with racism expressed in forms including racial slurs and exclusion. 

AAPI and mental health

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) include Americans of Asian descent and Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii.  

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

According to NAMI, AAPI families, especially first-generation immigrants, don’t want to “lose face” by admitting they have a mental illness, so they don’t admit they need assistance or neglect their mental health problems.  

Mental health struggles in this 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 children ages 10-14 (17.7%) and the No. 2 cause for youths ages 15-24 (28.6%). 

Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent and mental health

The Middle East and North Africa region includes countries such as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.  

According to a recent American Psychologist article, Americans of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent 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 racism and discrimination. For example, it found, multiple studies — including an American Journal of Public Health study and an American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Research Institute report — have shown that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, MENA 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. 

How Does Racism Affect Mental Health?

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.  

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.  

The relationship between racism and mental health is also 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. 

Psychological effects of racism that teens could experience include: 

How To Protect Your Mental Health From Racism

To protect your teen’s mental health and help them heal from racial trauma, you can connect your child with a mental health therapist. This will allow 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 offer diverse 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.’” 

You can find therapists near you who serve Asian; Black and African American; Hispanic and Latino; Native American; and Pacific Islander community members by using the Psychology Today search tool and the “More” filter. For additional mental health resources for these communities, visit To Write Love on Her Arms

In addition to finding the right therapist, Myles encouraged teens and families to consider getting therapy in environments where they feel most comfortable. 

“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 is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its 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-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.