Although today’s society may seem more awake to the ills of intolerance and bias than ever, the truth is that discrimination is still rampant. What’s more: we know it. On the issue of racial equality, roughly 61% of Americans believe that the country, both its institutions and its inhabitants, still have a lot of work to do in creating a more just society. Among black Americans, 43% believe that the work will never be done.
Although we tend to see discrimination as one-off or institutional offenses, not much is said about the toll it takes on those who are on the receiving end of it. In 2016, UCLA produced a report that found that discrimination isn’t just about subjective inequality: it’s a public health issue that poses threats to the mental health of those who find themselves contending with it day after day.
To what extent does discrimination play a role in mental and public health? Will life always be this way, or are there actionable measures to allow people to breathe easier?
Discrimination is Stressful
Decades of research among populations who are treated differently or unfairly shows that facing discriminatory or bigoted behaviors impacts people in a range of ways. Some research says that among some people, it can destroy their self-esteem. Among others, it can lead to a significantly higher risk of anxiety and depression.
One thing that discrimination can almost always be, however, is stressful. The American Psychological Association published the results from its 2016 Stress in America survey that found reports of discrimination correlated with higher stress levels (and poorer reported health).
How is discrimination stressful? One direct correlation is the reporter needs to go out of their way to avoid it, often by being careful about their appearance. But one recent study showed that stress isn’t all in the act and the aftermath: anticipating prejudice leads to measurable stress responses. So if you’re someone who has faced chronic discrimination, you may show signs of stress even on days where you don’t leave the house.
Ultimately, chronic discrimination can come to dictate your life’s trajectory, which can compound the effects of stress. Discrimination stops people from following their true passions, which explains why there are so few women and minorities in STEM. Discrimination in STEM fields comes in the form of stereotypes, with many of the people in power holding biased opinions about the performance of women and minorities. This kind of discrimination can lead to a lack of opportunity in educational or professional settings.
Stress is a Public Health Issue
The same Stress in America survey produced by the APA found that while black adults are the most likely to self-report discrimination (three in four adults reported daily discrimination), the issue of discrimination also includes those who face poor or unfair behavior due to their age, gender, or sexual orientation. What’s more, those who reported being most stressed were Hispanic adults (highest average stress levels) followed by younger generations (usually women, adults with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community).
At this point, the role of stress in health outcomes is well-known. Stress is bad for both your mental health and your physical health in so many ways. And both of these types of health interact with public health. Stress can contribute to unhealthy diets or promote disease. In terms of mental health, one person’s mental health can impact other peoples’ mental health, particularly when the stress causes you to fail to control your emotions, which is common among incredibly stressed or anxious people.
The impact of stress on your health and the health of those around you means that you need to be proactive in caring for and protecting yourself.
How to Protect Yourself
Society won’t solve racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and other forms of bigotry overnight. Discrimination in the workplace remains prevalent despite the practice violating federal law. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try: it’s simply a reflection of the monumental and complex task that is solving discrimination.
Although discrimination is unfair, protecting yourself from the stress caused by it means finding coping mechanisms to deal with this all-too-common-type stress. Therapists suggest doing your best to build a strong support network: the prevalence of the issue means that you are not alone in your experiences. Mental healthcare providers also suggest focusing on building a positive identity and sense of self, which will help mitigate the effects that other people’s actions and beliefs have on your understanding of yourself.
While it should never just be on you to protect yourself from the unjust actions of others, protecting your own mental health can then enable you to go on to do important work.
Social action can help you cope with the world. Instead of ignoring experiences, think broadly and document them. If what you’re facing is a policy or procedure, work together with others to suggest changes that can save others from the headache later on. Finding your voice in your industry or community and then using it can help you take back the power over your own life and further empower you by making you an agent of change.