Racial burden, the forgotten risk factor of mental health

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Racial burden, the forgotten risk factor of mental health

Every year since 1992, the 10th of October celebrates the World Mental Health Day. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this topic has entered the public debate, making it possible to raise awareness about the distress of children, adolescents or students confronted with the endless lockdowns and the emotional and social instability caused by it.

However, when mental health is discussed in Belgium or more widely in Europe, the impact of racial discrimination experienced by non-white people is rarely mentioned as a risk factor.

Racism throughout the years has evolved to adapt itself to changes in laws, mentalities and morals. In the early 2000s, the American psychologist Derald Sue took up the concept of racial microaggression (RMA) developed by the psychiatrist Chester Pierce to designate “brief and common exchanges, intentional or not, that convey devaluing messages to people of colour because of their racial affiliation.”

The repetitive nature of these RMAs puts the body in a state of alert that can cause nervousness, stress, or fatigue. These repetitions lead minorities perceived as non-white not only to anticipate racial prejudice or discrimination but also to have to make it intelligible.

This is what Maboula Soumahoro, a French-Ivorian doctor in civilisations of the English-speaking world and specialist in African-American and Black/African Diaspora studies, calls the racial burden, i.e. the strategies put in place and the explanations provided in order to demonstrate the racism experienced.

This racial burden is often paid for at the cost of the humanity of those concerned. Thus, addressing the racial component of ethnic minority mental health is a public health issue that needs to be taken seriously.

It is only in 2020 and due to a global pandemic that mental health of children and teenagers has been seriously taken into consideration by Belgian policy makers. It is only in 2020 and due to the almost live video-posting of the murder of a black man by a white police officer and the worldwide outrage generated that a national awakening on the racism experienced by Afro-descendants in Belgium happened. It is in 2020 that we witness the use of a health crisis as a pretext for the unabashed expression of anti-Asian racism.

What tragic events must we wait for to finally address the racial component affecting the mental health of ethnic minorities?

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