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This is a low: The enduring effects of racial discrimination on mental health within the academy

  • 24 July 2020
  • By Jason Arday

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Jason Arday, Assistant Professor in Sociology at Durham University in the Department of Sociology and Visiting Research Fellow at The Ohio State University in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion among other positions.

Higher education is a battlefield and the causalities of this inequitable war continue to be fatigued battle-weary people of colour within the academy. The trauma inflicted invariably causes varying levels of psychological distress for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) individuals continuously encountering the violent racial episodes. These episodes can involve racial stereotyping or continuous undermining or questioning of BME individuals’ professional capabilities in the workplace. The lasting impact of these residual, post-traumatic effects significantly compromises and exhausts mental wellbeing.

While all mental health is undeniably important, a context that receives little attention is how BME staff experience mental illness in the face of continuous overt and covert racial inequality and discrimination within the academy.

The use of talking and behavioural therapies have been influential in steering individuals away from treatments and interventions that rely solely on medication. Extensive research (see sources at the bottom of this blog) suggests BME academics and professional staff continue to experience differential mental health support and psychological intervention with regards to successfully navigating altered mental state, particularly in relation to the trauma experienced when facing and navigating racism. There remains a lack of understanding concerning the nuances of discrimination and racism that invariably affect mental wellbeing. Such experiences are heightened and triggered by seminal moments such as the murder of George Floyd which represents the centrality of racism within our institutional and societal structures. Sewell (2011) explains that the suppression of these experiences by some healthcare professionals compounds racialised episodes for BME individuals who continue to remain subjected to discriminatory and stereotypical judgements posited by healthcare professionals upon presentation of psychological symptoms or altered mental state.

Attempts to recognise the varying contextual wellbeing needs of an ever-broadening university populace have meant a reconceptualisation and adjustment in psychological healthcare resource and provision throughout the sector. The inextricable link between the residual traumatic effects of racism and the connection to destabilised mental wellness is undeniable, as racial discrimination continues to infiltrate egalitarian ideologies while dividing our multi-cultural society. The paucity of psychological interventions available in dealing with this type of trauma requires continual evaluation as racism remains interwoven into the institutional fabric of our society.

The plight of BME mental health within higher education and wider society points to a significant failing of the mental healthcare profession and pastoral university services to successfully support and accommodate ethnic minority patients. Within health-related research and wellbeing discourses, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are often omitted and under-represented with regards to their lived experiences and interactions with healthcare professionals.

There are racialised perceptions which unearth unconscious and conscious biases resulting in healthcare professionals’ sometimes shifting the focus on ‘racism’ being the problem. This trivialisation and deflection towards hyper-sensitivity has huge implications for the BME staff member seeking psychological support.

Healthcare professionals offering psychological support must be more knowledgeable in understanding and acknowledging the long-term effects of racism on mental health and wellbeing. Recognising the debilitating effects of racism provides a point of departure for how we collectively address and dismantle racism in all of its decisive manifestations.

Pastoral and counselling services on offer must become more culturally appropriate. Recruitment processes for healthcare professionals within universities must specify cultural awareness and diversity training as an essential component of the required skillset. Healthcare professionals should also regularly undertake professional development which supports their understanding of varying discriminatory intersections and the psychological impact of this upon racialised minority groups more specifically within the higher education sector.

Academics are inherently vulnerable to being overworked, scrutinised, hyper-surveilled and performance-managed. Sources of stress are continually amplified for many staff within an extremely pressurised and marketised sector. Sadly, this stress is further exacerbated for BME staff who continually reside on the periphery of exclusionary institutional and organisational cultures that do little to include or alleviate the unwanted burden of racism. There is an onus on universities to invest resources in diversifying the composition of clinicians to ensure that the service is reflective of a multi-diverse university community. From a societal perspective, collective endeavour is required that focuses on removing barriers encountered at the interface between service users and healthcare providers.

The removal of these barriers upon presentation of psychological symptoms are central to ethnic minorities having more productive experiences regarding better outcomes with mental healthcare services. Additionally, raising awareness of mental health within BME communities and recognising that the navigation of racialised lived experiences remains dependent on the development of bespoke, targeted psychological interventions.

The development of culturally specific and contextual psychological interventions are essential in attempting to encourage health seeking behaviour during the early presentation stages of altered mental state for BME individuals encountering racism. There is an urgent need to prioritise the mental health of BME staff within higher education and reposition their plight from the margins to the centre in the face of growing racial discrimination. Interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing are important instruments of catharsis for ethnic minorities traversing the thorny terrain of racism.

Other tangible actions can be reflected through the following practical recommendations: raising awareness of systemic and institutional racism and the impact upon mental health; signposting BME staff towards culturally appropriate psychological and pastoral services; and diversifying healthcare staff within the mental healthcare services.

Government policies tasked with tackling mental health particularly in the tightening grip of a global pandemic must consider how mental health support systems can better support BME individuals, particularly in these racially turbulent times. This becomes even more salient when considering the disproportionate number of BME individuals effected by COVID-19. Within a university and societal context, critical and reflexive considerations are required in discerning how workplace structures and cultures function to sustain racism. Examining the inequitable terrain is paramount because BME individuals continue to be more likely to be at risk of mental illness and less likely to receive the appropriate intervention required.

Within a higher education context BME staff, experience mental health differently. These experiences are often exacerbated by racially violent and hostile environments within the workplace. The importance of more productive psychological outcomes upon initial presentation of symptoms for ethnic minorities is essential in establishing a mental health system that satisfies the multiplicity of diverse service users. Moving forward, systemic changes are required to dismantle the enduring centrality of institutional racism. Our healthcare provision within our universities must modernise while simultaneously recognising the contextual intersectional differences that individuals experience when encountering altered mental state. For BME individuals encountering the cyclical nature of racial violence, more must be done to ensure access to culturally appropriate psychological support.

Further Reading

Arday, J. (2018). Understanding Mental Health: What Are the Issues for Black and Ethnic Minority Students at University? Social Sciences, 7 (10), 196.

Arday, J. (2020) No One Can See Me Cry: Understanding Mental Health Issues for Black and Minority Ethnic Staff in Higher Education (Higher Education: In Print).

Grey, T., Sewell, H., Shapiro, G., & Ashraf, F. (2013) Mental Health Inequalities Facing UK Minority Ethnic Populations: Causal Factors and Solutions. Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, 3 (1): 146-157.

Myrie, C.V., & Gannon, K.N. (2013) “Should I really be here?” Exploring the relationship between Black men’s conceptions of wellbeing, subject positions and help-seeking behaviour. Diversity and Equality in Health and Care, 10 (1): 1-22.

Sewell, H. (2012) Race and ethnicity in mental health care. In P. Phillips, T. Sandford, & C. Johnston (Eds.), Working in mental health: Policy and practice in a changing environment. Oxon: Routledge. pp. 104–115.

Wallace, S., Nazroo, J., & Bécares, L. (2016) Cumulative effect of racial discrimination on the mental health of ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom. American Journal of Public Health, 106 (7): 1294-1300.

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