Link between Racism and Mental Illness



"… 22% of African-American’s surveyed said they constantly think about their race, and 50% said they think of race at least once a day -- they are constantly reminded of their race… that has a profound effect on health." (1)

As someone who is a visible minority in a mainly white school community, I was not surprised by this statistic. I do think about my race and compare myself to the majority regularly, and this does lead to an additional stress.

After reading multiple articles on, and speaking to fellow students about the link between racism and mental illness, I became more aware of the importance of this subject, and learned a lot about the relationship between different types of racism and their negative impacts on mental health.

Interpersonal discrimination

Interpersonal discrimination can be defined as a racial aggression or attack from one person on another.

Whether it is constant individual microaggressions (indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group), or direct attacks, the effect that this type of discrimination causes intense and constant stress on an individual. These events add up and can cause chronic stress over time, potentially leading to more severe mental and even physical illnesses.

In multiple studies, discrimination has been associated with increased rates of stress and anxiety leading to other medical conditions such as, PTSD, hypertension, heart disease, and depression. (1)

A student at Western University shared their experiences with microaggressions in a school community. They said: “I guess racism just makes me feel excluded. It’s an anxiety where I overthink my movements. I haven’t directly experienced racism except for one time when someone told me to go back to my country. But it’s like subtle racism that is much worse in my opinion. I feel like sometimes there is an expectation associated with my race. Being of South-Asian descent I am supposed to be smart, religious, and because I might not follow these stereotypes, I get called “white-washed”.”


Ecological level discrimination refers to racism that occurs from a majority population within a community towards a smaller minority group within the same community.

According to a study, ethnic minorities groups forming a smaller proportion of the population are more likely to suffer from mental illness. Additionally, the smaller the minority group the more likely these people will be diagnosed with a mental illness. In fact, an article stated that there was a “a 2-fold increase in the incidence of a psychosis in people from ethnic minority groups in London, UK […] with a low percentage of ethnic minority inhabitants compared with those living in areas with high ethnic minority population densities.” (2)

Student at Western: “It makes sense, when your race is more prevalent you feel more at home and that you belong, which probably overall increases your mental health. I would say that feeling like a minority for sure can affect your mental health negatively. For instance, I feel like there are times I must conceal that I’m ethnically Palestinian if I’m around a lot of white people because I want to avoid conversations about “the issue” especially when people don’t understand it. So yeah, it’s draining sometimes. Even at school I took part in the Palestinian support group there and I constantly felt like I had to defend my existence.”

Institutional racism

There is some evidence of racial preference in treatments. In some cases, it has been suspected that doctors are more likely to offer appointments to middle-class white people than to middle-class African-Americans.

Racism can also create unhealthy workplace conditions. These events cause tension in the workplace reducing productivity and reducing workplace synergy. This can also damage the image of a firm. “28% of respondents reported that they directly experienced or witnessed racial harassment or bullying from their manager.” (3) “Those who had experienced a racist attack were nearly 3 times more likely to suffer from depression and 5 times more likely to suffer from psychosis. Those who said their employers were racist were 1.6 times more likely to suffer from a psychosis.” (2) Unfortunately, even given the dire consequences, racism persists in some circumstances.


Understanding the effect that racist actions and words can have on one’s mental health, should promote more thoughtful behaviours. Improving the relationship between race and mental health will come when other’s prioritize understanding a person’s culture and history. Moving forward, be thoughtful in your words and actions while thinking of any unconscious biases you may have.

By Nikhil Chandan