According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July has been designated as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. It is observed each July “to bring awareness to the unique struggles that racial and ethnic minority communities face regarding mental illness in the United States.”

For those of us in the field of behavioral health, this is greatly appreciated, but in fact the unique struggles that plague minoritized communities are taking a toll day in and day out, year after year, decade after decade. A toll that at times has been difficult to understand and express. But as time has passed, science has made strides in helping us elucidate what our minoritized communities have known all along. That although we are resilient, the effects of racism are real. They happen at a biological level and impact our physical health and our mental health, which are inextricably connected.

Racism and Children’s Health

The effects on children and youth are quite concerning. Researchers have linked racism to poorer birth outcomes, such as infant mortality. Mothers who report experiences of racism are more likely to have babies with a low birth weight, which can cause further health problems for infants later in life.

Asthma has been described as “the most racially and ethnically disparate health condition in the USA.”  Black Americans are 40 percent more likely to experience asthma than white Americans. Lead poisoning can damage developing brain cells in children, leading to intellectual, developmental, and behavioral disabilities. Black children aged one to five living below the federal poverty line are four times as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than poor white and Hispanic children.

Like older Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), young people also experience the ongoing stress of living with and witnessing racism and discrimination. As young BIPOC get older, they risk developing chronic health conditions similar to their parents. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that failure to address racism in the United States “will continue to undermine health equity of all children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.”

The AAP also said that even if children do not directly experience racism firsthand, they can be just as significantly affected by witnessing racism. Intense and persistent stress can influence how the brain develops, escalating negative emotions such as fear and impacting learning and memory.

Toxic Stress and Premature Biological Aging

Research on adults has shown that exposure to chronic stress creates progressive “wear and tear” on the human body. It increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, and hypertension. “Toxic stress,” for example, is when the brain floods the body with stress-related hormones (such as cortisol) that impact adrenaline, breathing, and metabolism. The excessive cortisol levels gradually cause problems throughout the brain and body.

According to an Auburn University study, chronic stress results in premature “biological aging.”  The study revealed that the increased incidence of racial discrimination over a ten year period showed distinct signs of faster aging at the cellular level than whites. They identified shortening of telomeres, which serve to stabilize the natural ends of our chromosomes.

Other studies have shown an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and some cancers at younger ages than white people, known as “weathering.”  Too often this is due to late-stage diagnosis. For example, Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. And older Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to experience dementia, but 35 percent less likely to be diagnosed.

From Awareness to Action

It is time to move beyond awareness. Through the cumulative nature of our research and science we are poised to understand the effects of racism on our physical and mental health, which must then be translated and applied to our therapeutic interventions, our medical interactions, and our health care system. This will lead us to eliminating the health disparities already identified and ensure that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

For the month of July, the Hogg Foundation is celebrating Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. We are highlighting stories that explore the efforts of diverse communities to improve community conditions that impact mental health, and what we all can do to make that happen.

Related Content