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Linking racism and depression

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Depression has been an increasingly popular topic in mainstream culture. I’m sure most of us have seen commercials for anti-depressant medications where white people are running on a beach in slow motion while a voice over lists all of the different ways you can die from taking the medicine.

There are many discussions surrounding depression and the different causes and treatments for this illness. Some recommend dietary changes, while others recommend pills, but a study links experiences of racism with depression. [I would also add in sexism!]

An international review led by the University of Melbourne has found children and young people experience poor mental health, depression and anxiety following experiences of racism. The first of its kind, the review showed 461 cases of links between racism and child and youth health outcomes. Lead researcher Dr Naomi Priest at the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing at the University of Melbourne said the review demonstrated racism as an important factor influencing the health and wellbeing of children and youth.

I remember I once got into an argument with a veteran who was trying to tell me that only military members can get post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and I thoroughly disagreed with him. I told him that racist, sexist, ableist, classist microaggressions could induce trauma. Derald Wing Sue, Ph.d. brilliantly describes what a microaggression is:

Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated. These messages may be sent verbally (“You speak good English.”), nonverbally (clutching one’s purse more tightly) or environmentally (symbols like the confederate flag or using American Indian mascots). Such communications are usually outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators. 

So, understand that the culmination of racist microaggressions can seriously induce trauma and stress in a person of color. Sue provides an example of being on a plane with a friend and being asked to move to the back of the plane to balance out the weight, even though three white men were sitting in front of them. The three white men also sat down after them so it was odd that they were not asked to move. After Sue asked the attendant why she didn’t ask the white men to move to the back, the attendant said that she didn’t see “color” and that they were merely being “oversensitive.”

We can’t talk about depression in a postracial way, meaning that we can’t ignore the ways that certain racial groups are treated differently. Sure, depression can be caused from many different factors, but adding racism onto the list of possible attributions helps evolve the dialogue about illness.

Darold Wing Sue, Ph.D. states:

Ironically, some research and testimony from people of color indicate they are better able to handle overt, conscious and deliberate acts of racism than the unconscious, subtle and less obvious forms. That is because there is no guesswork involved in overt forms of racism.  Many racial microaggressions are so subtle that neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is happening. The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads. Studies support the fact that people of color frequently experience microaggressions, that it is a continuing reality in their day-to-day interactions with friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and employers in academic, social and public settings

Racism is a public health problem because many people of color are being impacted by these subtle aggression’s. It’s important to spread the word about this study because the side effects of racism are real.

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