The Mental Health Toll of Racism
The murder of George Floyd has inspired Black Lives Matter protests across the world
Therapist Dania Akondo shares her own experiences of racism and explains the toll racism can take on mental health
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“I cannot do this” – this was my initial thought when the, now infamous, video depicting the murder of George Floyd began to circulate the internet. I vehemently refused to witness yet another black individual suffering and even dying at the hands of a racist white person. As a black woman, racism has permeated my soul. The anger simmering in my body serves as a constant reminder of all the injustice in this world. For the sake of my sanity, I initially chose to ignore the Black Lives Matter protests. Instead, I indulged in funny comedies and mindless TV. While browsing for a programme to watch, I stumbled upon Little Fires Everywhere, a series that addresses issues of racism, ignorance and white privilege in the US. It was as though my subconscious was imploring me to dwell on current events. I caved in.
The show made me reflect upon all the microaggressions, all the bigotry, all the pain I had fallen victim to. “You are pretty for being black”; “I love your hair, is it real?”; “you’re lucky you’re not pale”; “I find you attractive, but I would never date you because you’re black”; I am all too familiar with such remarks. On the show, Elena (Reese Witherspoon) scapegoats Mia (Kerri Washington) and blames her for her own shortcomings, all the while refusing to acknowledge her own “white fragility” (DiAngelo, 2018). Mia’s challenges of institutional racism are met by Elena’s defensiveness, sensitivity and reluctance to acknowledge her own privilege. “That’s the difference between you and me – I would never make this about race”, Elena proclaims. This is unfortunately the reality we live in. We need to make this about race, because racism still exists.
I feel frustrated that conversations about racism still need to be had. Why has our voice been silenced for so long? For those who refuse to acknowledge that racism is still alive and well, consider this: how can a grown man deem it appropriate to scream “chocolata” at me and my friend while walking down the street in Berlin? How can people still think it’s okay to ask me where “I’m really from”? Is it okay to be referred to as “cocoa” by school children? Is it okay to single out the only person of colour on a Master’s course? Why is it that we still get overlooked for job opportunities? And how is it still okay for people to ask us to assimilate to “white culture” yet question our “double consciousness” (Du Bois, 1903)? This is not okay.
Even though I have been reluctant to recount some of my most painful memories, the current climate has given me the strength to share my voice and challenge ignorance, intolerance, injustice and discrimination. My entire childhood in Italy was tainted by racism and discrimination. leading to feelings of hurt, loneliness and sadness. These emotions have resurfaced, as my wounded inner child now demands attention. In my younger years, I was made to feel inferior, different, ugly and unworthy of love. Years of abuse culminated in vicious self-hatred, manifesting itself as a little girl’s dream of being lighter.
Despite experiencing racism in the UK, relocating to London allowed me to finally feel liberated. This was enabled only by the black community, whose resilience, determination and persistence inspired me to take pride in my heritage and ignited my quest for self-acceptance. Today I stand with my black brothers and sisters in the fight against racism because I matter. WE matter. Now more than ever, we need white people to acknowledge their whiteness, support the movement and use their platform to promote racial justice. It is no longer acceptable to remain silent.
People of colour often fail to recognise that stress induced by racism can have a psychological and physiological impact on their wellbeing. Numerous studies have reported higher levels of cortisol in minority groups, as well as mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and addictive behaviours. Repeated exposure to racism can lead to trauma, which is not often adequately recognised. When thinking of trauma, experiences such as sexual abuse and natural disasters usually come to mind. However, the inequalities encountered by minorities on a daily basis can result in trauma, which, if unaddressed, can be highly detrimental to their health. It is not surprising that several members of the black community have commented on their current mental and physical state, reporting feelings of hopelessness, sadness and fatigue.
For those of you who find themselves triggered by recent events, please look after yourselves. Reach out to friends, family, mentors, teachers or anyone who can support you in these difficult times. Perhaps contact a counsellor, if you find yourself unable to cope with the distress. I would also encourage you to develop a self-care plan, to alleviate some symptoms of stress and anxiety. Bear in mind that there is no right or wrong way to self-care – listen to your own needs. Remember, your feelings are valid – we matter.
DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It's so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications.