A doctor explains why anti-Black racism is increasingly being recognized as a public health issue

The impact of systemic racism in Canada is far reaching, and mental health trauma within the Black community as result is a very real issue.
Published June 29, 2020 12:36 p.m. EST
Last Updated June 29, 2020 12:36 p.m. EST
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Anti-Black racism is defined here as policies and practices rooted in Canadian institutions such as education, health care, and justice that mirror and reinforce beliefs, attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping and/or discrimination towards people of Black-African descent.

These stereotypes are rooted in the unique history of slavery here in Canada and throughout North America; the stereotypes (some examples are those regarding intelligence, or trustworthiness) are still alive and well today, and impact the implicit and explicit biases that people have towards Black Canadians. So then we see patterns of injustice and poorer outcomes in education, the workforce, healthcare and the justice system.

It’s very difficult to see videos like we have been seeing recently - the murder of George Floyd being just one of too many examples. They can lead to a great deal of trauma and anxiety in the Black community. This is called vicarious trauma or second hand trauma

Graphic videos combined with lived experiences of racism can create severe psychological problems, very similar to PTSD. It can also bring on symptoms of depression:

  • Re-experience trauma – flash backs
  • Avoidance – feeling numb
  • Increased arousal – feeling on edge, difficulty sleeping
  • Dissociation – all feels very unreal
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Withdraw from others

People's reactions will vary, and if a person has a history of mental illness they might have more amplified or stronger reactions to what is going on right now.

Important to note that reactions will also vary based on lived experience of racism.

Some people might not realize that, so if you have friends, colleagues, etc. that don’t have an experience of systemic racism or of anti-Black racism, they might not react in the same way.

Studies also show that African Americans who witness videos of violence against Black men have statistically higher rates of depression. 

The spill over of police killings of unarmed Black Americans could result from heightened perceptions of threat and vulnerability within the African American population, lack of fairness, lower social status, lower belief in ones own worth in seeing those killings, identifying with the deceased. The killing of George Floyd represents our fathers, brothers, ourselves on the screen and has a very deep impact on us. We will be more likely to carry this over the next few months -  this is our life journey from day to day. 

What can be done to help reduce the trauma?

  • Self monitor for signs of stress and trauma and reach out for help – self awareness is key
  • Restore your well and let others replenish it - take time for yourself and seek the support of friends and family
  • Re-center your own spiritual and physical health - meditation, prayer, exercise, good diet
  • Stay informed
  • Be intentional, kind and gentle to yourself and others - there will be days you feel drained or irritable and times that other will feel this way too, especially in this new covid-19 reality we are living in, so let's have compassion for ourselves and others

This is good advice for everyone, but in particular for those with lived experience of anti-Black racism. Ultimately there seems to be signs of positive change, and thanks to activists who have been doing this hard work for years in Canada, like Black Lives Matter, I think in the midst of the recent chaos, we as canadians are seeing a glimmer of hope - this is history in the making.

To learn more, listen to Dr. Onye Nnorom's podcast; Race, Health & Happiness

Resources

  1. United Nations. Report of the working group of experts on people of african descent on its mission to canada. 2017.
  2. Black Health Alliance - Anti-Black racism and Health in Canada
  3. Association of Black Psychologists (American): Family­care, Community­ Care and Self-­care Tool Kit: Healing in the Face of Cultural Trauma  

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