Racism is an ongoing biopsychosocial stressor that has physiological, mental, and emotional effects on children, adolescents, young, middle, and late adults. In today’s blog, you will explore the relationship between the stressor of racism and health and how the stress of perceived discrimination can impact the physical, mental, and emotional bodies of adults and children. 

I will start with an explanation of racism and what stress is. Furthermore, I’ll explain where it comes from, and how the stressor called racism is related to health.

What is racism?

Racism is a social construct that gives an advantage to a group and disadvantage to another group related or based on race and skin color. It is a classification of superior and inferior that puts people in a box and minimizes or suppresses the potential of another group. “Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.” (Dooley, Dougé, & Trent, 2019).

When you see and feel the injustice in this social construct that we are all part of it, it makes me feel sad. As when you hear children asking their parents “Why do white people treat people of color so mean?” It it shown that discrimination has an impact on physical, mental, and emotional health, it makes me feel like I want to stop this. When you hear that people of color are humiliated day in and out by different racistic triggers, my heart aches. Is this the world you dream about? I do not! I do not want a world like this for my nieces and nephews, children, and younger generations to grow up in. Do you? 

The connection between stress and racism

Let me explain how stress is defined and what the connection is to racism and health. Stress is a state of emotional and mental tension, structural, and biochemical strain caused by specific events named stressors that we perceive as threatening or challenging. Each individual perceives stress on a different level. According to the World Health Organisation, stress is a “World-Wide Epidemic” and the number one epidemic of our civilization. Check out my latest blog on what every person ought to know about living a stress-free life.

Social stress, such as racism, is part of it. There are different kinds of stressors that can have an impact on our emotional, mental, and physical health, such as food stressors, work stressors, relationship stressors, financial stressors. And environmental stress, such as racism, is one of those stressors that impact the health of children and adults. “Racism is a pervasive stressor.” (Cale, Camai, Dominguez, Garris, & Hamati, 2017).

What is the impact of stress on the body? 

When people have stress, they do not sleep well; they are not present and aware of their relationships, at work, at school, they do not eat well. They experience biological effects such as high blood pressure, heartbeat speed ups, and the immune system gets compromised. It is the prominent cause of inflammatory disease in the body. “The biological mechanism that emerges from chronic stress leads to increased and prolonged levels of exposure to stress hormones and oxidative stress at the cellular level. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, leads to inflammatory reactions, that predispose individuals to chronic disease.” (Dooley, Dougé, & Trent, 2019).

As you hopefully can imagine the negative output and input of racism can be very toxic and have a stressful impact on the whole body. Negativity is an environment that is literally toxic and has biochemical consequences on the physical and mental body. What does that mean? Biochemical stress can be the inability to repair the structural stress resulting in inflammation and illnesses.

“Numerous studies demonstrate a relationship between racism and a variety of both mental and physical health outcomes.” (Paradies, 2006; Williams and Mohammed, 2009; Anderson, Freeman, 2013). It can cause health disparities such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, cancer, low birth weight, and maternal mortality. As you may know, the time of childhood and adolescence is a susceptible time regarding the development of the physical body, the emotional body, and our mental body. Therefore children must grow up in a healthy, nurturing, and responsible environment to develop well on all levels.

Why kids are affected more likely

The central development of the physical, mental, and emotional body, and the brain happens all over these years of childhood and adolescent. This critical time is the foundation of the span of life. I cannot emphasize enough how unhealthy social stressors such as racism are. It harms all levels of a children’s and human body and cannot be seen as healthy and nurturing for growing up at all. How can we justify racism? I have no answer, except it is not justifiable from my point of view. People of white color who are part of this mess-up have to ask themselves “Why do we create a society and world like this? What is the intention?”

Prolonged social stress takes a toll on health. (Dewall, Myers, 2016). A growing body of research has found that racism harms children’s mental and physical health (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2019).

Statistics of stress and racism

Findings have shown in 121 empirical quantitative studies with young people age 12-18 years (African American, Latino/a, and Asian) health-related outcomes. Stress was measured with 100%. “Mental health was the most commonly reported health-related outcome, 51% of all health-related outcomes related to mental health.” (Karlson, Kelly, Paradies, Priest, Trenerry, & Truong, 2013). The human body can cope temporarily with stress, but consistently stress can damage the body and the emotional and mental health.

As a pediatrician, I know that when children are stressed, it impacts their health and development,” said Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP, co-author of the statement (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2019). “When children experience chronic stress, they are flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol that, after prolonged exposure, leads to inflammatory reactions. This can harm children’s health in the short term, but also creates long-term health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and depression.” (AAP, 2019). Children who experience discrimination daily, inequality, and ostracism-the social exclusion of an individual or groups-, are exposed to intense stressors. 

How can we create a society and world that is more balanced and equal?

How can we stop individual and systemic racism and reduce the rates of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety and low-self esteem that are related to racism? 

Racial inequality is seen daily in the United States and other parts of the world. An example is health care provider discrimination. When I hear that a study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that providers were more likely to listen to patients, ask about their lifestyle and mental health issues, spend more face to face time with patients, and involve patients in decisions about their care if they were white, I feel I want to apologize. This is an attitude that is not correct and wrong from my perspective and needs to be changed. 

“While progress has been made toward racial equality, the impact of racism on communities of color is wide-reaching, systemic and complex,” said Maria Trent, MD, MPH, FAAP, FSAHM, lead author of the policy statement. “A combination of strategies will be needed to begin untangling the thread of racism throughout the fabric of our society, and to improve the health of all children.” (AAP, 2019).

Racism in the United States and Worldwide

To conclude, as the United States is a nation of immigration that has a long history of the imprinted issue of racism it is more crucial than ever to end individual and systemic racism. As racism is a global issue also other countries are dealing with the impact of the social stressor racism in nowadays. Because of the increasing diversity in a global world, active campaigns need to be built to bring forth political and social change in the United States and other countries. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is an organization that took steps to encourage cultural effectiveness, diversity, and inclusivity in the pediatric workforce. AAP President Kyle Yasuda, MD, FAAP says, “as a pediatrician, I know that when we help children grow up healthy and with equal access to opportunities, we improve all of society.” (AAP, 2019).

It’s time to change

All of us are urged to create awareness around cultural differences, diversity, and inclusivity for the sake of health and well-being. It is required to do the inner work and start to explore and work on biases, prejudgments, and prejudices and learn about privilege and rank. These biases and prejudices can be very subtle and show up as blind spots! 

It is needed to implement changes not only to the health care system but nearly into every aspect of lives including, pediatrician’s practices, hospitals, schools, universities, workplaces so that racism can stop affecting children’s and adult’s mental, emotional and physical health. “This is an area where we can – and must – make a difference,” said Dr. Trent (AAP, 2019).

Are you ready and willing to make a difference in this world? If you are willing to do your inner work and want to understand and change your biases, blind spots, and inner conflicts, feel free to contact me. Coaching might be a great starting point for you!

Stay well,

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Dewall, C. N., Myers, D. G. (2016). Exploring Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Holder, É. X. (2014). The Effect Of Parental Experiences With Racism And Discrimination On Children’s Social And Emotional Health. Ann Arbor: ProQuest LLC.

Dooley, D. G., Dougé, J., & Trent, M. (2019). The impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent 

Health. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Doi:10.1542/peds.2019-1765

Karlson, S., Kelly, Y., Paradies, Y., Priest, N., Trenerry, B., Truong, M. (2013). A systemic review of studies examining the relationship between reported racism and health and well-being for children and young people. Journal of Social Science & Medicine, 95, 115-127. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.11.031

Cale, M., Camaj, L., Dominguez, T. P., Hamati, M. C., Heard-Garris, N.J. (2018). Transmitting Trauma: A systemic review of vicarious racism and child health. Journal of Social Science & Medicine, 199, 230-240. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socsimed.2017.04.018

Rollins, J. A. (2017). The Depth of Racism in the U.S.: What it Means for Children.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2019). American Academy of Pediatrics Addresses Racism and Its Health Impact on Children and Teens. Washington, DC: Author.

Soleil, G. (2016). Workplace Stress: The Health Epidemic of the 21st Century. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/workplace-stress-the-heal_b_8923678

Fink, G. (2016). Stress: The Health Epidemic of the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/stress-health-epidemic-21st-century/

Categories: Soul