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Study: Facing racism depletes young adults' mental health

People ages 18 to 28 who are exposed to consistent discrimination are 25 percent more likely to have mental health issues.

Making the transition to adulthood can be full of challenges. A new study finds that the effects of discrimination can cause severe mental health damage to the already-struggling young adult age group.

The study from researchers at UCLA found that young adults who endure frequent interpersonal discrimination based on race, sex or physical appearance are at greater risk of mental health issues than those who don't. The authors analyzed data from a 10-year survey and found that people ages 18 to 28 who experienced consistent short- or long-term discrimination are 25 percent more likely to experience psychological distress, to be diagnosed with a mental illness or to report excessive drug use.

"It paints a striking picture of how discrimination is very strongly related to mental and behavioral health in young adults. It's harder to be a young person today than it has been in a long time," said the study's senior author, Dr. Adam Schickedanz, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "The world is spinning faster. A lot of things are changing constantly, and there are a lot of challenges. If we're more attuned to that ... we can do better by young people."

From 2007 to 2017, young adults who experienced consecutive years of severe, high-frequency discrimination showed higher risk for mental health problems and worse health overall, the research found.

While the study focused on people of various backgrounds, racial discrimination has long been considered a significant mental health stressor for Black people, with government leaders increasingly acknowledging that health inequities along racial lines can cause psychological distress. Experiencing racism has been linked to higher levels of anxiety and depression among Black people. An estimated 67 percent of Black adults have said discrimination is a significant source of stress, according to a July 2020 survey from the American Psychological Association.

The association's chief diversity officer, Maysa Akbar, the author of "Urban Trauma: A Legacy of Racism," said discrimination can commonly show itself through microaggressions.

"What racial trauma is is the cumulative effects of racism on an individual's mental and physical health," Akbar said. "Oftentimes it's linked to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and a host of other health issues. This is something that can exist throughout the lifespan. You can experience it as a child, as an adolescent and into young adulthood. When we walk around with this unresolved trauma, it just creates more detrimental effects on our well-being."

Akbar said getting adequate sleep, engaging with spirituality, family support and self-care can "really be a good jump-start to mitigating these moments of chronic discrimination."

Simply experiencing racist discrimination isn't all that affects mental health. The authors found discrimination to be linked to disparities in mental and medical health care, as well. Black mental health advocates have consistently highlighted that the country's public health systems leave people with few options for culturally competent care.

Meanwhile, community-based clinics that work to fill such gaps go severely underfunded. In a 2018 study by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing and the Cohen Veterans Network, several participants cited exorbitant costs and said the government should do more to fund Black mental health services. Black people with mental health needs are less likely to get treatment than white people, according to the American Counseling Association. The study also found that Black people sometimes don't seek care because of "feelings of mistrust and stigma or perceptions of racism."

Three percent of the country's psychology workforce is Black, according to 2019 data from the American Psychological Association.

Clara Benson, 33, of South Carolina, launched CREW (Community Resources for Enduring Wellness) in July 2020 after, she said, several of her peers came to her asking whether she knew any Black mental health providers. They were difficult to find. Benson, who studied psychology in college, said she is not a mental health provider, simply a concerned citizen looking to find her "lane in the movement."

So, under CREW, Benson launched the Black Wellness Project, publishing a database of nearly 200 mental health providers in the Carolinas.

Benson said such resources are important because, "especially in rural places, you don't typically see yourself represented enough" in databases where the general population looks for counselors.

"And it takes a lot to find Black faces," she said. "When you're in crisis and trying to find help, it's imperative that you're not facing those kinds of barriers. That's just one more thing that you have to deal with. I said, 'If I can go through and find every Black face that I can and put it in a spreadsheet, maybe it would ease access for people.'"

Along with the physical stress of racial trauma — which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and more — emotional trauma can result from daily microaggressions to watching videos of police killing Black people. As of August, city councils, county boards, public health departments and governors' and mayors' offices in 37 states had made at least 200 declarations of racism as a public health crisis, according to the American Public Health Association. However, federal and state leaders have been slow to adequately address structural racism as a threat to public health, the association said.

The coronavirus pandemic aggravated the existing stressors for Black people. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Black communities through health, unemployment and education. And a June 2020 Washington Post poll found that 1 in 3 Black people knew someone who had died from Covid-19. As the coronavirus began wreaking havoc on the U.S., hundreds of protests broke out across the country to combat police violence after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis on Memorial Day 2020. The nation's racial reckoning took a toll on Black people, and Black therapists reported a spike in demand from Black clients.

Akbar said the demand is significant, because Black communities sometimes shy away from seeking treatment for mental and physical illnesses for fear of experiencing more racism.

"In general for the African American communities ... seeking mental health treatment is really the last option," Akbar said. "You have to be in an incredible amount of crisis to say this is the way you're going to go."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.

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