Impact on Mental Health

Interpersonal and institutional racism can have negative impacts on mental health. Mental ill-health symptoms caused by racism can include low mood, low-self-esteem, hypervigilance, trauma, anxiety and depression. Accumulation of repeated interpersonal racism and the impact of institutional racism can cause stress that can have long-term physical health impacts.  The mental health impacts of racism can lead to children and young people disengaging with education and feelings of alienation and isolation.

Structural racism causes socio-economic inequalities across Scottish society. Minority Ethnic communities are more likely to experience poverty, have poorer educational outcomes, higher unemployment, have contact with the criminal justice system, and may face challenges accessing or receiving appropriate professional services. This too impacts mental health while creating barriers to receiving support.

A small qualitative study by Intercultural Youth Scotland offers insight into issues related to racism and mental health for Black young people and People of Colour in Scotland. It illustrates the impact of racism on the mental health of these young people  and their difficulty in talking about this issue to either family or school staff is also highlighted.  Discussing their feelings with their family could be difficult due to stigma and lack of  acknowledgement of mental health difficulties within some communities. Barriers to talking to staff included a lack of a safe space to do so and that racist incidents were not taken seriously by school staff and other adults. It was also noted that some children and young people’s mental health was negatively impacted by cultural expectations, especially gendered ones, and by the challenges of negotiating identity and belonging as second- or third-generation immigrants. This report also identifies a number of barriers to engaging with mental health services.

This image depicts two young people smiling while using a tablet.

Preventing and responding to the impacts of racism on mental health will require the ongoing development of a safe and respectful school environment that has race equality and anti-racism woven through the curriculum and all aspects of the school system. Through the staged intervention process staff will request support for learners who require multi-agency support. Incidents and disclosures of racism must be responded to properly as a timely and trauma informed response to a disclosure of abuse or incident can help mitigate some of the mental health impacts. The school should have protected safe spaces and all staff should be trained in supporting those who had experienced racism. Appropriate community groups may support with this. Consider too the support systems in place for learners who are at risk of facing racism and whether mental health support is part of these systems. It might also be helpful to plan both physical and online safe spaces, such as anti-racist clubs, similar to LGBTQ+ cafes. Safe spaces in classrooms and across the school community are essential for buffering the adverse effects of race-related stress and racial trauma caused by racism.

It is important to recognise that the mental health of Minority Ethnic staff may also be negatively impacted by racism in educational settings. The Scottish Government report ‘Teaching in a diverse Scotland: increasing and retaining Minority Ethnic teachers’ found that Minority Ethnic teachers face racism and discrimination in the workplace including racists attitudes and language of staff, parents and pupils. It noted that ‘Being subjected to low level everyday racism in a school setting affects an individual’s level of morale, confidence and self-esteem’ (Scottish Government 2018, P.16)

Reflective questions

  • Are all staff confident, trauma informed and trained in responding effectively to disclosures of racist bullying or abuse?
  • What safe spaces have been established within settings for Minority Ethnic learners and practitioners?
  • Are routes to accessing support transparent for learners and practitioners who have experienced racism?
  • How do settings foster a culture of respect and safety for all learners?
  • Are all staff aware of opportunities available to support mental health?
  • What support is available for staff responding to racist bullying/abuse?

Information on the impact of racism on mental health is available here.