By Shirley Roberts
In Canada, February is Black History Month when we celebrate the legacy of Black Canadians, past and present. It is an opportunity to focus on accomplishments and contributions while at the same time acknowledging the obstacles that many continue to face to achieve equity. Racism and discrimination are very prevalent in our society and have a negative impact on the mental health of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour communities.
Despite the resilience and successes of Black Canadians, racism takes its toll. Anti-Black racism can be overt as in racial or ethnic slurs, but it can also be systemic. Policies and processes in our public institutions often set up barriers to Black Canadians accessing employment, housing, education, legal services and health care. Rules are often applied differently. Barriers often take the form of undue scrutiny and mistrust in day-to-day interactions with service providers and sometimes lead to difficulty in accessing appropriate care and services.
A subtler form of racism is sometimes referred to as “everyday racism” or microaggressions. These are behaviours that are often coded and based on assumptions about a person because of preconceived notions about race or ethnicity. These assumptions may be about attaching criminal behaviour or attributing a certain level of intelligence to race, reflected in being followed in stores, denied employment, promotions or arbitrarily stopped by police.
These lived experiences have a cumulative effect on the development of stress, and studies have shown that they lead to or compound the development of mental health issues. Specifically, these effects might include depression, anxiety, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, people may experience a loss of hope in the future and justice, feel lonely, disconnected and unable to trust. Repeated experiences of racism can also contribute to physical illnesses, particularly heart diseases.
These issues are often overlooked by service and care providers. This leads to an increased risk for Black communities being misdiagnosed and undertreated when looking for mental health support. It also discourages people from reaching out for care or services because of increased wariness about how they might be treated.