As racism rises, mental health of youth of color worsens

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Racism is a stressor for its victims, no matter their age, researchers began concluding several decades ago. Adding to that body of analysis are some new studies on specific impacts of racial discrimination and race-based hatred on Black and Asian young people. This research and related data can help journalists expand their coverage of how schools, clinicians and communities are tackling the fallout from racism.

Black youth living in areas deemed to have more anti-Black racism were less likely to benefit from cognitive-behavioral and other psychotherapies than their counterparts residing in communities where anti-Black racism is comparatively lower, according to a study analyzing five decades of psychotherapy research.

The study, published in June in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, involved people across 34 states and used “publicly available data on anti-Black racist attitudes to create a measure of state-level structural racism and analyzed randomized controlled trial data from youth psychotherapy studies of 2,182 mostly Black youth.” 

 “The extent to which racism or other prejudicial attitudes are endorsed in a given community — such as a neighborhood or a state — varies across the country,” lead researcher Maggi Price, a Boston University social work professor and director of its Affirm Lab, said in a press release. “Our study found that the level of racism in one’s community affects how well one does in mental health treatment.”  

Other recent studies have also tackled racism and the mental health of non-white children and youth.

During the pandemic, according to this April 2022 analysis published in the CDC’s Weekly Mortality and Morbidity report, 35.6% of 7,705 high school students reported from January 2021 to June 2021 that they’d faced what they perceived to be racism. And 63.9% of Asian high schoolers, 55.2% of Black ones and 54.5% of multiracial students reported being the victim of perceived racism. 

Compared to students who did not report being in poor mental health during the pandemic, those who reported facing perceived racism had higher rates of failure to concentrate, remember and make decisions, heightened feelings of not being close to others at their schools, and other poor mental health conditions, according to researchers. Among Asian students, 67.9% reported being in poor mental health because of perceived racism, compared to 40.5% who did not report the same. The respective figures were 62.1 % and 38.5% among Blacks; 45.7% and 22.9% among Hispanics; and 24.5% and 12.7% among whites.

Listing racial discrimination among adverse childhood experiences, a study published in April 2022 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress concluded that racism substantially increased depression among roughly 8,700 Black youth included in that analysis.

The aforementioned studies come as, among others, the CDC and Mental Health America have called trauma-triggering racism — systemic, structural, interpersonal, etc. — a public health issue. By extension, mental illness, whether related to racism or other factors, has been linked to suicide, substance and alcohol abuse and such chronic illnesses as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The studies also come amid a surge in race crimes and other signs of blatant racism, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and ExtremismSouthern Poverty Law Center, which has produced this “Hate in School” report; and the U.S. General Accounting Office. In a November 2021 report , that federal agency counted increases in hate speech, hate crimes, bullying and other victimization in schools during the 2018-19 school year, which was pre-pandemic.

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