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Emotional toll of racism impacts both mental and physical health

Posted at 10:30 AM, Nov 27, 2020

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The moment Ryan Houston-Dial stepped on The University of Texas at San Antonio campus, he felt at home.

“This is where I want to be,” said Houston-Dial of the feeling he got when he visited the school.

The university offered everything he wanted, but somehow, several semesters later, the psychology major was left feeling empty.

His classes were the first place he felt alone.

“Typically, I was the only African American male, so sometimes I feared tokenism, that I would have to be the speaker for a certain demographic,” he said.

The feelings of worry and stress only grew with the racial unrest this year, and the pandemic.

“My mental health was pretty low. When you have to be able to try to process a lot of these things that are going on in America, and still have to go to work or go to school and act like that did not happen, I feel like you lose a part of yourself.”

But Ryan couldn’t accept that loss. He reached out to The Steve Fund: a nonprofit providing mental health resources specifically for students of color.

He joined an advisory board there to help develop solutions for colleges to support students of color better, especially through the pandemic.

Psychologists there also opened up conversations that helped him understand the emotional weight he was carrying inside himself.

“Racial trauma is real, and college students are likely entering into college already with racial trauma in their systems,” said David Rivera with The Steve Fund. Rivera is also an Associate Professor at the Queens College of New York. “Racial trauma is inherited from our ancestors who had to endure very traumatic events, so we carry that with us.”

We spoke with several psychologists to explore the conversation of healing racial trauma and where it comes from. We spoke with Dr. Theopia Jackson of the Association of Black Psychologists and the Chair for the Clinical Psychology degree program at Saybrook University and Winley K., a clinical psychologist who specializes in mental health care for young people of color.

Below, Jackson discusses the roots of institutional racism in the U.S.

"We glorify our forefathers in the efficacy, that they were trying to move forward. But we have to critically think, they were limited by what they knew at that time. At that time, we might presume, that there's this assumption they were not aware of their cognitive dissonance, thinking one way and behaving another. We can't say everyone has unalienable rights while you're still taking people's lands, owning people, and even the ways in which we have thought about and treated women in general and children in general, when they were owned by their husbands, so that's the cognitive dissonance. So we have to critically look at that and see how do we recognize where there are still roots of this in our ways of being?" said Jackson.

Winley K. said students come in for counseling often with racial trauma, and many don’t fully realize it.

“People often come in and say, ‘I just don’t feel good, I don’t have motivation for stuff, but I’m not sure why I feel like this,’ but then they’ll tell me that two days ago, someone called them the N word or in the classroom they're the only person of color and they feel like they're under a microscope and whenever something race related is brought up, people look to them for the answer, but they’re still saying I don’t know why I feel bad I don’t know why it's hard for me to do things I don’t understand, so a lot of the work is helping them draw connections between those pieces."

Houston-Dial realized he’d been living with that trauma for years.

“I believe around 12 or 13 years old, it started with the Trayvon Martin case, and I remember sitting in my living room, and I just started crying. It hit a certain point to where I almost didn't even know why I was crying. And as I became older, I began to more realize I was crying because when I saw Trayvon Martin, I saw a reflection of myself that, being an innocent Black boy very well in his neighborhood minding his own business could very well lose his life,” said Houston-Dial.

This pain can be lessened with time and support. But without that, racial trauma can have real consequences on a person’s health.

“There is a wellness impact to experiencing microaggressions, and when they go unchecked, they can create anxiety, they can create depression symptoms such as sadness, such as fatigue,” said Rivera.

These microaggressions can take many forms. It can be a subtle racist comment or a derogatory look.

Below, Jackson discusses how consistent microaggressions can impact a person's health

All are damaging. That’s why researchers say it’s more important than ever to get young people mental health resources, because 50% of life long mental illness start showing up by the time a person turns 14, and 75% of chronic mental illness will likely emerge by age 24.

“The more that we can equip the young person in terms of helping them to understand the various dynamics they’re likely to endure in their life, such as microaggressions and racial trauma, the better off this young person will be in the end,” said David Rivera.

"There are those unseen or unrecognizable or small instances that can happen, and that is when we talk about microaggressions and people say, 'you speak really well' to a person of color, which is sort of a backhanded compliment." said Jackson. "The speaker may really have the intentions of giving a compliment, and the receiver may think it really was one, but within their spirit of some space, is what people may call the unconscious if you will, or the unknown parts of ourselves, these types of comments for the receiver can generate this idea of, 'wait a minute, why do I need to be complimented that I speak so well?' That has something to do with not being expected to speak so well particularly when our mainstream messages will in fact suggest that certain people from certain groups aren't supposed to speak very well," said Jackson. "We have science that suggests that exposure to consistent microaggressions can lead to physical challenges such as health care issues around diabetes and obesity and other things like that."

Psychologists say improving the situation will not only start on the individual level by giving young people better tools to help improve their mental health, but it will also take conversations about dismantling the institutional racism that exists all around us, including here on college campuses.

“The impact of institutionalized racism is pretty deep,” said Rivera. “Their systems, their procedures, their structures were created for a very few at the expense of many.”

But, both Rivera and Houston-Dial believe this system can be rebuilt.

“I believe right now, it's going to take empathy,” said Houston-Dial.

More than that, it will take deep, honest conversations between all groups to come together, not grow further apart.

“It’s gonna take those who are unaffected to be just as enraged as those who are affected on a daily basis, and from there we can start to have more honest conversations about what race is,” said Houston-Dial.

With those conversations, this college student is hopeful change will come.

But, Houston-Dial is already creating change working with The Steve Fund, and his on-campus publication The Paisano.

He and a group of students, including Chevaughn Wellington, a medical student at Quinnipiac University, developed a report with ways to support youth of color, especially during the pandemic.

The Steve Fund is also now reaching out to high school students to provide mental health resources and a safe place to open up about emotional racial trauma.

On his own campus specifically, Houston-Dial and other students petitioned for more counselors to be available to students on campus, and the petition was successful. The university now has more options and mental health resources available for students.

These successes have been a beacon of hope to Houston-Dial in spite of the obstacles this year placed in front of him.

“I have a voice as an African American male in a society that very well may try to oppress me and put me down, but I can still be the icon to another African American male saying, ‘Hey it is okay to want to cry, it is okay to want to talk about certain things that are bothering you and that: we can do this together,’” said Houston-Dial.

Because together, their plea for a better tomorrow cannot and will not be ignored.

“We just want to be seen as your equal. That's all we want,” said Houston-Dial.

Words that exist in a complicated reality, but a reality this student and his peers will not stop fighting for.