This misunderstanding has led to racism, and has had an affect on physical and mental health.

Racism, or discrimination based on race or ethnicity, is a key contributing factor in the onset of disease. It is also responsible for increasing disparities in physical and mental health among Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). 

 2015 systematic reviewTrusted Source collated the results of almost 300 studies to look at how racism affects the physical and mental health of Asian American, African American, and Latino American people.

Physical health

The aforementioned systematic reviewTrusted Source found that experiencing racism is associated with poor mental health and, to a lesser extent, poor physical health.

There is considerable research to suggest that the stress associated with experiencing racism can have long lasting physical effects.

Racism is associatedTrusted Source with higher rates of stress, increasing a person of color’s risk of developing high blood pressure. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source report that Black people are more likely to have hypertension than any other racial or ethnic group.

Stress as a result of racism can also lead to behaviors that may cause further risk to physical health. For example, researchTrusted Source has found that discrimination is linked to higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, drug use, and unhealthful eating habits.

Another study found that unfair treatment of people of color has a significant consequential effect on sleep and physiological functioning in midlife.

Many studies have cited structural racism within medical care as a key factor in poor physical health. For example, a 2016 study into racial bias and pain management found a link between under-treating pain in Black patients and false biological beliefs, such as, “Black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s skin.”

A 2015 studyTrusted Source found that compared with other racial groups, Black children with severe pain from appendicitis are less likely to receive pain medication. This suggests that racial bias is causing medical professionals to use different thresholds of pain for different racial groups, either inadvertently or purposefully, before administering care.

Mental health

The 2015 meta-analysisTrusted Source found that racism is twice as likely to affect mental health than physical health. Of those the researchers sampled, BIPOC who reported experiences of racism also experienced the following mental health issues:

  • depression
  • stress
  • emotional distress
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts

A 2018 paper suggested that fear of racism itself is harmful, and that it can undermine good mental health characteristics, such as resilience, hope, and motivation. The paper also underlined how verbal and physical assault can cause PTSD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are so concerned about how racism affects the well-being of young people that they released a 2019 policy statement on it.

The statement says that failure to address racism in the United States “will continue to undermine health equity of all children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.”

Physical health

Racism is already linked to poorer birth outcomes, such as infant mortality, for BIPOC. StudiesTrusted Source suggest that mothers who report experiences of racism are more likely to have babies with a low birth weight, which can cause further health problems for the infants later in life.

Just as with older BIPOC, young people also experience the ongoing stress of living with and witnessing racism and discrimination. As young BIPOC get older, they have similar risks of developing chronic health conditions as their parents.

Mental health

The AAP recommend that young people who report experiences of racism should undergo routine assessment for mental health conditions, including:

  • PTSD
  • anxiety
  • grief
  • depression

The AAP also say that even if children do not directly experience racism themselves, they can be just as significantly affected by witnessing racism as those who experience it firsthand.

Intense and persistent stress can influence how the brain develops, intensifying negative emotions such as fear and impacting learning and memory.

How to live healthfully while facing racism

Talk about racist experiences with others

Many studiesTrusted Source have suggested that talking about racist experiences, instead of bottling them up, can help a person process feelings of stress, anger, and frustration.

Similarly, engaging with — instead of ignoring — racism is likely to be beneficial.

Foster a strong sense of racial identity

Studies into racism and its effects on mental health have found that BIPOC who felt strongly about their racial identity were less likely to be distressed by racism and less likely to be physically or mentally affected by it.

Therefore, having a well-developed sense of ethnic or racial identity may help blunt or buffer the effects of racism. 

Lean on friends and family

Having a network of people to talk to for support, advice, and comfort can help people cope with racial discrimination. It can encourage a sense of security and identity and reduce negative thoughts and feelings.

Some studiesTrusted Source have also found that having a strong support network may even combat depression.