Racism Affects Whites and Blacks Mental Health
by CC Campbell-Rock
Four days after the concrete lynching of George Floyd by three rabidly racists cops, Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, president of the American Psychological Association released a statement on the mental health consequences impacting black people, as a result of witnessing high-profile violent events targeting African-Americans.
“George Floyd, dead after a police officer knelt on his neck. Ahmaud Arbery, fatally shot while on a jog. Breonna Taylor shot to death by police raiding her home. Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin — the list is far too long and ever growing. The deaths of innocent black people targeted specifically because of their race — often by police officers — are both deeply shocking and shockingly routine.”
“If you’re black in America — and especially if you are a black male – it’s not safe to go birding in Central Park, to meet friends at a Philadelphia Starbucks, to pick up trash in front of your own home in Colorado or to go shopping almost anywhere” the psychologist said.
“We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens. The health consequences are dire. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.”
“The American Psychological Association urges those who are experiencing trauma in the aftermath of these tragedies to practice self-care. Connect with family, friends, and other community support people, talk about your feelings, and limit your exposure and that of your children to news media and viral videos. Seek professional help if you need it,” Schullman advised.
Shullman, who is white, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in transitional/project housing. Her exposure to people of various cultures has informed her lifelong commitment to social justice.
Calling out both the psychological and physical damage done to black people, as a result of what Schullman calls a “Racism Pandemic,” is one facet on the pyramid of savage injustices black people have had to face from generation to generation: from slavery to American Apartheid (Jim Crow), voting rights, violations of civil and human rights, targets of police brutality and murder, victims of gerrymandering and gentrification, redlining, and economic injustices, and the theft of the America Dream from those aspiring to rise out of poverty.
Several black psychologists and psychiatrists have been sounding alarms about this “racism pandemic,’ for several decades.
Although he is best known as a script and production consultant to NBC’s The Cosby Show (and also to The Cosby Show’s spin-off A Different World) Alvin Francis Poussaint, M. D. is an American psychiatrist well known for his research on the effects of racism in the black community. He is a noted author, public speaker, and television consultant, and Dean of Students at Harvard Medical School.
During an interview with this writer, Dr. Poussaint said, “People have a right to be racist but it’s when they act on their racial tendencies, they become dangerous.” Poussaint said he’s treated clients for racism.
In 2002, Poussaint authored an article called: “Is extreme racism a mental illness?” for the Western Journal of Medicine. After concluding that extreme racism is a mental illness, Poussaint wrote: “The American Psychiatric Association never officially recognized extreme racism as a mental health problem, although the issue was raised more than 30 years ago. After several racist killings in the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists sought to have extreme bigotry classified as a mental disorder. The association’s officials rejected the recommendation, arguing that because so many Americans were racists (at the time), even extreme racism in this country was seen as normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology (until the 1960s)…”
“To continue perceiving extreme racism as normative and not pathologic is to lend it legitimacy. Clearly, anyone who scapegoats a whole group of people and seeks to eliminate them to resolve his or her internal conflicts meets criteria for a delusional disorder, a major psychiatric illness,” Poussaint continued.
“As a clinical psychiatrist, I have treated several patients who projected their own unacceptable behavior and fears onto ethnic minorities, scapegoating them for society’s problems. Their strong racist feelings, which were tied to fixed belief systems impervious to reality checks, were symptoms of serious mental dysfunction. When these patients became more aware of their own problems, they grew less paranoid—and less prejudiced.”
Dr. Poussaint believed then and continues to believe, that extreme racism should be classified as a mental disorder in the DSM–5, the diagnostic manual for the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the U.S.
“It is time for the American Psychiatric Association to designate extreme racism as a mental health problem by recognizing it as a delusional psychotic symptom. Persons afflicted with such psychopathology represent an immediate danger to themselves and others. Clinicians need guidelines for recognizing delusional racism in all its forms so that they can provide appropriate treatment. Otherwise, extreme delusional racists will continue to fall through the cracks of the mental health system, and we can expect more of them to explode and act out their deadly delusions.”
It’s been 18 years since Poussaint’s clarion call. In 2020, during the month of May, the extreme racism harbored by police with guns and badges took the lives of three unarmed black people: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd.
Monnica Williams, Ph.D. is a board-certified, licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapies. Her research interests also include the role of culture and race on mental illness. Dr. Williams has created a screening tool to determine the level of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) experienced by people of color, as a result of racial trauma.
“Many ethnic and racial groups experience higher rates of PTSD as compared to White Americans. One explanation for this is the experience of racism, which can itself be traumatic. Racial trauma can result from major experiences of racism such as workplace discrimination or hate crimes, or it can be the result of an accumulation of many small occurrences, such as everyday discrimination and microaggressions,” Williams wrote in Practice Innovations. The article aimed to provide a context understanding how racism can lead to a diagnosis of PTSD according to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Beyond the psychologic impact and the possibility of getting killed for breathing while black, very little attention has been paid to the economic devastation and the provocation of poverty that has been visited upon black people because of racist people who are in high places, i.e., the leaders of Fortune 500 corporations, who have put concrete ceilings in place that prevent black people from acquiring the well-paying jobs that are typically held by people who are living the American Dream. As it stands, despite the alphabet soup behind an educated black person’s name, blacks are still not well-represented at the corporate table.
Justice delayed, is justice denied.
However, Reverend Al Sharpton’s powerful eulogy at George Floyd’s Memorial Service in Minneapolis, captured the essence of the impact of the racism pandemic on black people.
“We don’t want any favors. We just want you to take your knee off of our necks so we can be anything we want to be.”