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Racism - the Threat to our Mental Health

As the 2020 Mental Health Awareness Week approaches an end, many of us are reflecting on the state of our mental health during the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on people of colour. One of our new members, Abiọ́dún, wrote an extensive breakdown of the racial disparities in physical health and mental well-being in Scotland. Her blog post demonstrates the endemic nature of racism in Scottish healthcare: from the unfair treatment of patients and medical staff, to the repercussions on mental health. You can find her work here.

Building on her analysis, I would like to examine racism as a threat to our mental well-being and what that means for Scottish education. As The Anti-Racist Educator, Intercultural Youth Scotland and the Scottish Association for Minority Ethnic Educators join forces to report on the impacts of Covid-19 on young people of colour, my understanding of the complexities of racism continues to grow. My learning journey is enriched by the work of the black psychologist Guilaine Kinouani, and her platform, Race Reflections. My own research into racial trauma has been a great reminder of how much more I have yet to learn. It is with humility and gratitude that I share some of my reflections here, as I acknowledge the labour of my predecessors and my multiple privileges that make this learning possible.

How does Racism Threaten our Mental Well-being?

Racism is both an ideology (belief in a racial hierarchy; white supremacy) and a set of behaviours and social practices that justify, and result from, this ideology. It is always worth reminding that race is not a biological reality – physiologically, we are all one human race. However, race is a social reality in the way it categorises, privileges and harms different people, generally according to their physical appearances.

In The Anti-Racist Educator glossary, our definition of racism is broken down into three main categories: interpersonal, institutional and internalised. By reading more about racial trauma, it has become clear to me that these three categories are equally valuable in understanding the mental health impacts of racism.

  • Interpersonal racism

This type of racism refers to prejudices and discriminatory behaviours where one group makes assumptions about the abilities, motives, and intents of other groups based on race. This set of prejudices leads to unequal actions towards other groups, regardless whether intentional or not. Interpersonal racism can take various forms, such as overt racial hate crime (physical violence and verbal harassment) and racial microaggressions (avoidance behaviours, covert undermining of one’s worth or academic ability for instance).

What does interpersonal racism do to our mental health? It has a significant individual impact, both mentally and physiologically. In some ways, our resilience, our coping strategies and our networks of social and emotional support will determine how harmful interpersonal racism can be to us. Mental ill-health symptoms caused by interpersonal racism include trauma stress (especially if you have been violently harassed), anxiety and depression. Since interpersonal racism tends to happen to people of colour throughout our lives, the accumulation of the stress it causes (known as "weathering") reduces the quality of our lives and this leads to long-term physical health impacts. For example, rather than just blaming salty and oily “cultural” foods, we should be considering how racism has something to do with the disproportionate rates of hypertension and high blood pressure in African, Caribbean and South Asian communities in the UK. In other words, your exposure to interpersonal racism has some influence on the quality of your life and, to some extent, your life expectancy. And that’s before even looking at the disproportionate infection and death rates of Covid-19.

  • Institutional racism (aka structural racism)

Institutional racism leads to racial disparities across society. It produces health disparities, increased rates of incarceration, lower representation in leadership positions, higher representation in low-skilled work and low-income households… the list goes on. With regards to Covid-19, many news headlines mention disparities in infection and death rates for people of colour in the UK, however, they often omit the root cause for these disparities: institutional racism. Such omissions cause the dangerous spread of scientific racism (the belief that racial differences are biological rather than societal).

Institutional racism is one of the most dangerous preexisting conditions for Covid-19. People of colour have faced higher death rates because of the structural inequalities such as:

  • Income inequality (exacerbated by loss of jobs and income during the lockdown)

  • Underlying health conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension - often connected to income inequality and interpersonal racism)

  • Environmental injustice (disproportionate numbers of people of colour in North America and Europe live near incarcerators and landfills and go to schools near highways and industrial sites)

  • Housing inequality (less access to green spaces, over-crowding and higher risk of homelessness)

  • Disproportionate representation in occupations in close contact with Covid-19 patients (in health care and public transport for instance)

  • Disproportionate rates of unemployment and precarious employment (especially for undocumented migrants who are at risk of modern-day slavery)

All of these disparities affect our physical health, our access to health care and they take a serious toll on our mental well-being. Even those people of colour who have managed to overcome many of these structural inequalities (those in middle and upper-class households) are at risk because of interpersonal racism in health care and the life-long accumulation of race-related stress. In other words, no matter your proximity to other privileges (wealth, class, gender, heterosexuality, citizenship and so on), racism remains a health and safety risk for people of colour.

no matter your proximity to other privileges (wealth, class, gender, heterosexuality, citizenship and so on), racism remains a health and safety risk for people of colour.

As the pandemic continues to aggravate these inequities, the mental health of people of colour needs to be prioritised in the context of structural racism. Otherwise, taken out of the structural context, the onus falls on the individual (and their cultural heritage) and we risk contributing to internalised racism.

  • Internalised Racism (aka colonised mentality and cultural racism)

Saying that people of colour’s cultures are the cause for a unequal access to mental health services is an example of cultural racism. While there does exist stigma around mental health discussions in some communities of colour, to treat it as something inherently wrong with the culture (even though white communities equally struggle with such stigma) is deeply problematic. Such false conclusions ignores the historical and inter-generational trauma that communities of colour have endured, as a result of slavery and colonialism. Such historical trauma has often made silence a coping mechanism, a survival strategy, that generations have learned and passed on for centuries.

Moreover, cultural racism causes people of colour to internalise the devaluation of their cultural heritage and the negative stereotypes associated with their racial group (i.e. internalised racism). While there is a lack of research in this field, internalised racism arguably does cause deep psychological damage. It has been linked to feelings of shame (about one's skin colour or cultural heritage), low self-esteem, self-hate, feelings of isolation and other depressive symptoms. Internalised racism leads to a sense of inferiority and evaluation of self from the perspective of the dominant racial majority. In Scotland, we have heard several harrowing stories of people of colour suffering from internalised racism: from young children trying to whiten their skin, to children self-harming and attempting to take their lives away. Last year, we reported the case of a Scottish primary school teacher who told his pupils that black people can’t swim – perpetuating an ideology of racial inferiority. Meanwhile, in one of the families attending that school, a five-year old black girl tried to whiten her skin with toothpaste and, at six, tried to self-harm. You can hear more about that story on our podcast.

Internalised racism, or the colonised mentality, is explored by Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks: as a result of the coloniser’s physical, social and psychological oppression, the colonised individual begins to believe their inferior social status is justified and inherent. In education, the colonised mind is what decolonial movements are working to heal. For instance, in a 2004 study on people of colour’s experiences of school, parents noticed concerning levels of internalised racism in their children attending Scottish schools:

“one of my daughters [was] saying she wishes she was white ... that is

hurting, disappointing for me because I don’t want her to be like that, I want

her to be proud of her colour, proud of her culture. The school played a big

role in that.” (Arshad et al., 2004)

More recently, the In Sight report by Intercultural Youth Scotland revealed that the Scottish curriculum does not value or reflect the cultural identities of young people of colour. 70% of young people of colour felt that class topics mainly focused on European culture and the majority agreed that, in English, the class read books that were not related to their culture, heritage and background. Internalised racism can be exacerbated by curricula that erase our ancestors of colour’s contributions to humanity and their wealth of knowledge across history.

When we argue for decolonising the curriculum, it isn’t just to stop white pupils from learning racial prejudice and reproducing it. It is to empower the pupil of colour, to counteract internalised racism, to build a stronger sense of self-esteem and to foster pride in their racial and cultural identity. Unless we decolonise the Scottish curriculum, we risk inadvertently reproducing ideologies of white supremacy, contributing to internalised racism and damaging the mental health of pupils of colour.


As we recognise that racism is a threat to our mental health, it is important that we don’t forget how other forms of oppression simultaneously aggravate mental health. We need to consider how multiple paths of marginalisation intersect, paying extra attention to supporting those who are caught between those multiple forms of oppression. In other words, we need to ask how sexism, toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, colourism, anti-Muslim racism, ableism, ageism (and so on) intersects with racism and places certain individuals most at risk. For instance, I was shocked (but upon reflection, not so much) to find out that, in the UK, there are disproportionately high rates of suicide among older South Asian women and higher rates of clinical depression among Black women.

In Scotland, the higher rates of mental ill-health among LGBTQ+ young people are relatively well documented. A Scottish study from 2017 reported that 96% of transgender young people indicated mental health problems and 63% experienced suicidal thoughts and behaviours. But what does that mean for young queer people of colour, who equally carry the psychological burden of racism? Finally, as I have referred to “people of colour” throughout this piece of writing, it is important to remember that this term is not adequate for representing the complex, heterogeneous nature of the people it refers to. In the context of whiteness, our proximity to whiteness (the lighter your skin, the more “palatable” you are for white people) will equally affect how psychologically harmful racism can be to us. To illustrate, as a light-skinned woman of colour, I have never experienced people avoiding sitting next to me on public transport, while my darker-skinned friends have reported this to be a regular occurrence that risked damaging their self-esteem and mental health. Similarly, I have not had to deal with pupils making monkey sounds in my classes or leaving racial slurs gratified on my desk, as has been the case for some Black and Muslim teachers in Scotland.

Survival Strategies

As with all our anti-racist work, after analysing the problems with racism, it is necessary to identify anti-racist solutions. As depressing as it sounds, there is no quick fix for racism and, unfortunately, people of colour are likely to experience racism as a threat to their mental health for the rest of their lives. Therefore, strategies that help us survive, cope with and buffer the negative psychological impacts are the best we can do so far. These strategies need to address every form of racism outlined above, to avoid counter-productively internalising racism or other intersectional forms of oppression. Some of these strategies include:

  • Better representation of people of colour in therapy and social work.

  • More culturally-responsive and race-informed therapy

  • Strong networks of social and emotional support (such as SAMEE for educators of colour and Intercultural Youth Scotland for young people of colour)

  • Anti-racist education, decolonised curricula and increased racial literacy for all educators and young people of colour (for people of colour in particular, realising the structural nature of racism can help rationalise some feelings of anxiety and depression)

  • Finding ways of expressing your racialised experiences (through art, personal story-telling, etc). The Colour of Madness is a great example of UK-based people of colour using writing and art to express these racialised experiences of mental health

  • Building a strong racial identity and pride in your cultural heritage

  • Activism (developing a sense of agency and empowerment in the face of injustice)

  • Seek therapy and support (especially in times of crisis)

  • Practise self-care (such as mindfulness and visualisation)


Abiọ́dún Abdul (2020), Scottish Racism in Medicine

Arshad, R., Almeida Diniz, F., Kelly, E., O’Hara, P. Sharp, S. & Syed, R. (2004). Minority Ethnic Pupils’ Experiences in Scotland. Edinburgh: Centre for Education for Race Equality in Scotland.

Franz Fanon (1952). Black Skin, White Masks

Guilaine Kinouani, Race Reflections

Linton, S. & Walcott, W. (2018). The Colour of Madness

LGBT Youth Scotland (2017). Life in Scotland for LGBT Young People

Pieterse, A. & Powell, S. (2016) A Theoretical Overview of the Impact of Racism on People of Colour. The American Psychology Association

The Scottish Association for Minority Ethnic Educators (SAMEE)



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