JOURNEY TO WHOLENESS
Justice Is Good Mental Health
By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.
Living in a culture where negative prejudices or discrimination exist can have a deep impact on one’s identity, self-esteem, and self-perception. We know that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other discriminatory beliefs can have a lifelong effect on one’s physical and mental health. Let’s look at how racial discrimination affects mental health.
A University of Michigan study followed 681 youths for eighteen years from 1994 (mean age fifteen) to 2012 (mean age 32). All participants lived in an economically disadvantaged urban area in the Midwest. Not surprisingly, they found that perceived racial discrimination predicted an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms.
The study revealed major gender differences. Black males reported higher rates of perceived discrimination than Black women. They found that Black women tend to use avoidant coping mechanisms, while Black men may use more combative forms of coping. Black women have a tendency to lean on social support, including family and friends, as a coping strategy when they experienced gendered racism. Historically and currently, Black women have better job opportunities, because Black men more commonly face discrimination in the labor market.
As present-day protests strongly remind us, stereotypes and public policies regarding the judiciary system mean that Black males endure much higher rates of mass incarceration, stop and frisk, and brutal policing. Even in the current conversation, issues of mental health, are not being addressed. It is important to begin to ask Black men with depression about their perceived racial discrimination over the life course. It is also important to recognize the outsized burden of Black women in our culture.
More recently, there is awareness and discussion of ‘micro aggressions’ experienced by people of color or other minorities. It is essential to consider all discrimination or prejudice, ranging from smaller, daily events to larger, more brutal, and long-term experiences.
As we recognize the short- and long-term effects of these experiences, we need to adjust our approaches and imagine better solutions. We must have systemic change in our justice and educational systems alongside improved economic opportunities and access to medical and mental health care.
People also experience a sense of shame about having depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Because of previous historical and personal experiences, people of color distrust the medical and mental health professions. Issues of affordability and access also need to be addressed.
On a personal level, we can be part of the problem or part of the solution. We can look at our personal interactions with others and our behavior and actions in all areas of our lives. Margaret Hagerman, author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, did research for two years imbedded in an upper-middle class white neighborhood looking at 36 children ages six to ten. She found that the children’s experience and knowledge of racial history and interaction with a racially diverse group of people was disappointingly low or non-existent. She recommends that parents think more about the good of all children, not just their own. She also found that talking about racial equality was not as helpful as actually giving those experiences in a child’s daily life.
As a mental health practitioner, I found the ideas and approaches of ‘liberation psychology’ helpful. This mindset was first articulated by Martin-Baro, a Spanish-born Jesuit and social psychologist working in El Salvador. He envisioned an approach that would acknowledge the psychological wounding caused by war, racism, poverty, and violence. It would support historical memory and critical reflection and help people by acknowledging their experiences, helping them to creatively make sense of and respond to the world. He encouraged people to reach for “an opening against all closure, flexibility against everything fixed, elasticity against rigidity, a readiness to act against all stagnation.”
It is important for everyone, whether engaged in mental health services or not, to affirm the experiences of those who have experienced pain and suffering in their environment. Denial of these experiences has a debilitating effect. Once affirmed, take action in any way you can – in personal relationships, in your community, and in influencing systemic change.
Let us hope that, through examination or ourselves and our actions, we can effect positive change in the environment by changing ourselves.
Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author. For counseling appointments, seminars, training, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Couple therapy call 913-322-5622. For more information about Jude LaClaire or the Kansas City Holistic Centre go to