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How systemic racism impacts mental health

  • According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes in major U.S. cities increased by 150 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Everyone deserves equal access to quality health care and resources. Yet, systemic racism creates barriers to quality mental health care for many members of marginalized ethnic groups. Frequent racially traumatic events have triggered mental health challenges for communities of color.

Read on to explore how systemic racism impacts mental health and how we can work together to resolve mental health disparities in disadvantaged communities. 

Systemic racism and mental health

Systemic racism describes the discriminatory actions, beliefs and unjust policies ingrained into education, the workplace, the economy, housing, the criminal justice system and health care. That means you likely experience, witness, or may accidentally participate in systemic racism on a regular basis.

Systemic racism arrived in the U.S. hundreds of years ago. Colonists took land from Native Americans and enslaved African Americans for many generations. Discriminatory practices, intentional or not, have continued in many different forms.

Systemic racism creates or worsens mental health challenges for many people of color. According to the American Sociological Association, race-related stressors can impact the mental health of disadvantaged racial and ethnic communities.

Racial trauma

One way systemic racism impacts mental health is through racial trauma. Racial trauma is an emotional or physical response to experiencing or witnessing racism, discrimination or racially charged violence. Subtle day-to-day interactions that marginalize, insult or dehumanize ethnic minorities (microaggressions) can add up and lead to racial trauma. When you’re targeted by racism, it can be embarrassing, scary and make you feel disconnected.

Racially traumatic experiences

  • Police-involved killings. Rates of mental health challenges soared following the police killing of George Floyd. The video of his murder circulated worldwide, causing anxiety and depression among Black, Asian and Native American communities to spike. Nearly a year later, communities relived his devastating death during the Derek Chauvin trial.

    For many Black people in the U.S., racial discrimination and police-involved killings have made getting pulled over a valid fear. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers.

  • Hate crimes. Some discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) stems from virus blaming because COVID-19 originated in China. Anti-AAPI sentiment was spreading before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S.

    Virus blaming has resulted in verbal abuse and physical attacks, causing fear among many Asian Americans. The 2021 Atlanta shooting that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, has also taken a toll on AAPI mental health.

  • Everyday racism. Everyday racism describes the daily societal practices and mannerisms that marginalize people of color. Everyday racism can include being mistreated, disrespected, ignored, or teased with off-hand racist “jokes.”

Racial trauma affects the body and mind

Everyone processes racial trauma in different ways, and the effects may vary from person to person. Racial trauma can lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There’s nothing normal about racism, and it’s common to experience a range of emotions when facing racial trauma.

When left untreated, racial trauma can lead to:

  • increased alertness and avoidance of perceived threats
  • chronic stress
  • anxiety or depression
  • irregular sleeping patterns
  • aggressive behavior
  • low self-esteem
  • substance abuse
  • feeling disconnected from others

Racial trauma can also impact your mental and physical health, ability to take care of yourself, maintain relationships, concentrate at work or continue the hobbies you enjoy.

Coping with racial trauma

Racial trauma and everyday racism can impact your long-term mental health and quality of life. There are several strategies for coping with racial trauma:

  • Practice self-care. Incorporating a self-care plan into your daily routines can boost mental and physical health.
  • Seek mental health treatment. A mental health professional can help you better understand your trauma or other mental health concerns and create a treatment plan for your unique needs.
  • Stay connected. Connecting with your loved ones and friends can boost your mood and fight isolation during the healing process. A supportive social circle can be a safe place to discuss your frustrations, fears and opinions without judgment. Your feelings are valid and no one can take them away from you.
  • Seek out activism opportunities. Contributing to systemic change can be a fulfilling experience. Attending protests is only one way to get involved.
  • Limit news and social media consumption. Take in the necessary information and unplug when you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Unfollow or block social media connections who share controversial or racist comments.
  • Start a gratitude journal. Track and reflect on your daily moments of positivity and recognizing what makes you happy. Journaling is also a good opportunity to express your feelings after experiencing or witnessing racism.

Barriers to mental health equity

Systemic racism is a critical barrier to achieving mental health equity for all. Barriers to mental health care can delay care, prolong mental health challenges and escalate symptoms.

Other barriers include:

  • Mental health stigma. Mental health stigma can lead to labels, stereotypes and delayed treatment. People of color are less likely than white people to get or accept mental health care. AAPIs are the least likely of any ethnicity to accept mental health support. Some people of Asian descent may be hesitant to talk about mental health concerns because of cultural values. For example, mental health stigma can also be caused by the stereotype that AAPIs have a stronger work ethic and experience more socioeconomic success than other minority groups. Experiencing mental health challenges and getting treatment doesn’t make you less successful than others.
  • Lack of diversity in mental health care. Approximately 86 percent of U.S. mental health professionals identify as non-Hispanic white. Some BIPOCs may prefer mental health providers with shared cultural values and life experiences. Our differences shouldn’t be a barrier to receiving quality care.

    That’s why many mental health professionals are strengthening their cultural competency to relate to people from different groups and backgrounds. Culturally responsible mental health care can help address the unique needs of each patient.

  • Language gaps. Language barriers can impact anyone in the U.S. who isn’t fluent in English. Approximately one-third of the U.S. AAPI population is not fluent in English. More interpretation services could expand mental health support across diverse communities.

  • Access to health care coverage. Everyone deserves equal access to quality health care and resources. Historically, BIPOC communities in America are less likely to be insured. One reason is race-based socioeconomic barriers impacting their ability to afford care. According to the U.S. Department of Human Services, Black, Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native communities are less likely to be insured than non-Hispanic white people. You can receive financial assistance for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act Marketplace.
  • Immigration status. Immigrants use less health care than natural-born U.S. citizens. Undocumented immigrants and Dreamers, who are given temporary U.S. residency by the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, aren’t granted health coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
  • Awareness of benefits. Some people may not be aware of the benefits of mental health care. The lack of awareness can be caused by the digital divide in disadvantaged communities, meaning some don’t have internet access to navigate the Health Insurance Marketplace® (Marketplace). The ACA created Marketplace as a shopping and enrollment service for affordable health care.

Others may wonder what exactly therapy can do for them or are skeptical about the practice of psychological therapy. Mental health support can help you develop coping strategies for your unique needs, validate your feelings, improve relationships and reduce your risk of complications.

Achieving mental health equity

Achieving mental health equity for all starts with ending the stigma around mental health. Educate yourself and support others struggling with mental health challenges. Expanding culturally responsible care can address the unique needs of more diverse communities.

How to make a difference

Systemic racism has existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years. While systemic change has come slowly, progress toward racial justice and mental health equity is encouraging. Taking action can make a difference and help improve your mental health. There are several ways you can join the fight against systemic racism:

  • Donate time and money to organizations benefiting people of color.
  • Participate in a local protest or community event.
  • Call or write elected officials asking for systemic change.
  • Amplify Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and AAPI voices and racial justice petitions through social media or other channels.
  • Allocate your spending to organizations and companies that support mental health initiatives and communities of color.

Where do we go from here?

While there is still a lot more work to do, conversations about mental health, systemic racism and barriers to health equity are a critical step forward. Conversations can lead to awareness, action and systemic change that works for everyone without bias of their culture, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or socioeconomic status.


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