The Impact of Systemic Racism on Mental Health Among Black Americans

Systemic racism has impacted the mental and physical health of Black Americans. During a session at the Neuroscience Education Institute Max! Virtual Meeting, Napoleon B. Higgins, Jr., MD, CEO at Bay Pointe Behavioral Health Service, Inc., discussed what is needed for medical professionals to understand what is going on and how to help their patients. “Racism hurts all of us,” he said.

There are different types of racism: individual, structural, and systematic. One in four Black families live in poverty, 44% of which are single-parent families. Lack of distribution of power, money, and resources impacts social determinants of health. Neighborhoods, health care, economic stability, education, social, and community impact health. Black newborns have a three times higher death rate when assigned to white physicians. Racial divides in health care persist even when controlling for socioeconomic factors.

Housing and redlining (denial of services and loans by public and private sector to a particular area deemed to be poor and of financial risk) impact health as well. One in three Black males can expect to be incarcerated in their life compared with one in 17 white males.

Black individuals have increased incidents of morbidity and mortality, poor survival, and diet-related chronic diseases. Environmental factors are also at play due to living proximity to landfills, chemical plants, and air pollution. Two out of three landfills are located in the inner city near Black communities, Dr. Higgins said.

Employment and wage discrimination adversely impact ethnic minorities, especially women in marginalized groups. White high school dropouts are hired for jobs at the same rate as Black college graduates. There is a wide, pervasive, and currently growing wealth gap between white and Black Americans; the current systems in place further grow these differences.

Black children and adolescents are less likely to be referred to counseling and are more likely to be sent to detention; they’re also more likely to be estimated to be older than they are.

So, what can we do, he asked? We have to be anti-racist — an active and conscious effort to work against multidimensional aspects of racism. “There is no such thing as neutrality,” Dr. Higgins said.

Clinicians have to be actively engaged to help Black individuals deal with health. “Don’t ignore racism. What we need to do is add more information and knowledge overall,” he said. “We have to get out of the fear zone where you deny racism. You need to go to the learning zone and zone of growth where we are willing to have uncomfortable conversations. If we all work together, we will be stronger on the other side.”

Presentation: Systematic Racism and its Impact on the Mental and Physical Health of Black Americans. Presented at the Neuroscience Education Institute Max! Virtual Meeting, Nov. 5-8, 2020.