Ending racism a step towards realising mental health for everyone
The recent increased global discourse on racism that followed the death of a Black American man, George Floyd, has triggered conversations about the pervasive racism in the world we live in. The actions of the protesters who took a stand following Mr Floyd’s death resonated across the globe demanding a commitment to stamp out racial discrimination against Black people all over the world. As we confront racial discrimination and stereotypes that perpetuate racism, we have to face the undeniable detrimental effects of racism on the mental well-being of individuals. Given South Africa’s tainted history of racial discrimination, the global conversations about racism have naturally also hit home locally.
The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH), as an organisation that works tirelessly to promote the mental health of all South Africans, along with advocating for the human rights of persons with mental illness, stands in solidarity with those who are peacefully calling for an end to all forms of racism. Our organisation’s concerns rest upon the fact that ongoing racial prejudice is an important stressor that could be a catalyst for the development of certain types of psychological disorders, as has been confirmed by research.
According to an article by American researchers, published in Anxienty.org in 2016 on studying the link between experiences of racism and stress and anxiety among African Americans, the negative impact of racism on mental health is pervasive and far-reaching. This, some researchers argue, could result in "racial battle fatigue," which includes anxiety and worry, hyper-vigilance, headaches, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and other physical and psychological symptoms (Soto et.al 2011).
Using arguments from a 1999 legal case involving the Canadian Minister of Immigration, discussing the construct of human dignity as “psychological integrity”, SAFMH previously argued that racism has detrimental effects on the overall mental health of those who are at the receiving end of racial aggressions. Researchers in the Anxiety.org article further argued that racial macroaggressions show themselves in more “overt racist experiences”, like when a person is called a racial or ethnic slur, being physically assaulted due to race, or being denied fair wages due to race. On the other hand, there are racial microaggression, which are described as genteel, “intentional or unintentional” subtle forms that denigrate or degrade individuals due to their race such as assumptions of inferiority or criminality due to a person’s race. (Abdullah & Graham 2016).
Racism is based on the fact that people are discriminated against on the basis of something they have no control over, such as the colour of their skin, and SAFMH has previously argued that the harm that this can cause to individuals is of great concern. We reiterate our stance that the right to dignity in particular is concerned with esteem and self-worth. It is linked to the mental health of an individual in the sense that in its absence, a person is left to feel unworthy and wanting. We therefore support peaceful movements that have correctly reminded us of the need to unequivocally affirm black lives matters, not only in America, where the protests started, but in our country as well.
In South Africa, Black people, especially those who are poor, have been forced to thrive under intolerable oppression (even post-apartheid) that often manifests itself in forms of brutality. During the initial three weeks of total lockdown, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was ongoing circulation of images and video footage of brutal actions by police and soldiers directed at Black people in townships. Most of these were people from poor communities who were forced to breach lockdown rules in search of food. One notable case is that of Collins Khoza, who died after an altercation with members of the South African National Defense Force and the Johannesburg Metro Police Department in his home in Alexandra Township. Mr Khoza’s death raised concerns about how Black lives are not being adequately valued (despite our young democracy) and how this further compromises the mental health of those who are left vulnerable by structural racism and discrimination. The fact that Mr Khoza’s death was initially met with a sense of public indifference has its rooting in research. According to recent South African research (Masson & Moodley, 2020), Black people have been exposed to excessive amounts of trauma through the apartheid system which has desensitised and forced many to develop “a level of hardiness” in order to cope with regular violence encounters and this has implications for further trauma in divided societies.
According to the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) (2020), the mental health consequences of longstanding racial inequalities and oppression ultimately results in internalised intergenerational trauma and psychological distress. SAFMH supports the call by the WFMH for the removal of political, social and economic barriers which exist and are obstacles to building mentally healthy societies. We further affirm everyone’s right to dignity and call upon everyone to work peacefully towards a free society, where the shackles of past and present oppression can be cast off and everyone may live a free, meaningful, productive and dignified life. A commitment to stamping out racism is not only justified, but is a step towards realising the mental health of all people.
Abdullah T & Graham J. (2016) - The Link Between Experiences of Racism and Stress and Anxiety for Black Americans: A Mindfulness and Acceptance-Based Coping Approach .
Francine Masson & Jacqueline Moodley. (2020) - Secondary Traumatic Stress: The Experiences of Social Workers in the South African Police Service .
City Press. (2019) - . Despair and exclusion – how racism can be a catalyst for poor mental health
Soto, J. A., Dawson-Andoh, N. A., & BeLue, R. (2011) - The relationship between perceived discrimination and Generalized Anxiety Disorder among African Americans, Afro Caribbeans, and non-Hispanic Whites. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25(2), 258–265 .
World Federation for Mental Health. (2020) - The World Federation for Mental Health Condemns all Forms of Racism and Calls for an End to Inequalities, Racism and Police Brutality .