Racism Can Increase Black Peoples' Risk for Chronic Illness, New Study Says

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We know that racism can negatively impact many different areas of a person's life — including physical health. A recent study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology also shows that racist experiences increase Black peoples’ risk for chronic illness, including heart disease and cancer. The study illustrates how prolonged, repeated exposure to racism can increase levels of inflammation for Black people, which puts them at risk for a host of health problems.

You may be wondering exactly what “inflammation” means in this instance, and how it’s related to racism. Well, as the study points out, for living things — animals, bacteria, humans, etc. — to survive they must have the capability to respond to external sources of distress, including infections, injuries, and situational anxiety. When those threats appear, it sets off an immune system response that acts as a defense mechanism. The resulting chemical process of inflammation means that the immune system is trying to repair what has been damaged.

Inflammation can be good for us. But if a person's immune system is threatened for a sustained period of time, that inflammation will negatively impact their health. Steve Cole, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-authored the study, said in a press release that "If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer.”

This is partly why Black people, who can experience or be exposed to countless instances of racism over the course of their lives, are at increased risk for serious health problems. Along with cancer, heart disease and stroke are among the leading causes of death for Black people.

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With 71 participants — two-thirds of whom were Black and one-third of whom were white — the study is quite small. Lead author April Thames, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at USC Dornsife, says that further research is needed. Still, these findings may not come as a surprise to many, as unfortunately, the science backs up lived experiences. I know it does for me.

As a Black Jewish woman and a writer who works in all-white spaces, I’ve experienced multiple racist incidents — some of them public and life-threatening — that have greatly increased my anxiety. A couple of weeks ago, at the age of 25, I went to a cardiologist for the first time in my life. I had been experiencing intense chest pain, numbness in my limbs, eye-twitching, and lightheadedness. After a round of tests, my doctor informed me that I was most likely experiencing chronic anxiety and panic attacks, but that I had gotten so accustomed to being in a heightened state of fear, that I no longer felt the panic, just the pain. He also said that due to this, I had slightly increased levels of inflammation. This terrified me, when I considered the studies that show how chronic anxiety is linked to a greater risk for heart disease, a condition my grandfather died from.

This study focuses on the experiences of Black people, but racial trauma affects other people of color as well. Sonia Gupta, an Indian-American woman who grew up Southern Louisiana, tells Bustle that she experienced racial trauma stemming from childhood that affects her today. “I was bullied and ostracized as a child, all for an immutable trait, the color of my skin. That history still affects me today as I struggle with learning to love and respect myself.”

Although places like where Sonia lived are often regarded as ultra-conservative regions where people of color may be exposed to more racism, many people of color say that they experience racial trauma in places that are meant to be liberal, progressive, or explicitly anti-racist.

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Constant exposure to violent images, as in common in the age of social media, can also be harmful. Videos depicting police brutality can traumatize Black and Native communities, who are disproportionately affected. And just as my doctor said that my body had grown accustomed to being in a constant state of panic, spreading these images normalizes and desensitizes us to the violence and racial trauma that people of color experience.

So how do medical professionals plan on treating racial trauma? The DSM-5 doesn’t mention how the culmination of racist experiences can cause racial trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so this is an emerging field of study, which means that there aren’t that many tried-and true treatments.

One new study is exploring the ways that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can treat racial trauma (or any kind of PTSD) for people of color. Some women of color have tried traditional talk therapy. The Therapy for Black Girls Directory helps women of color find therapists who can relate to their experiences. Other women of color, like Gupta, feel that building community works best for them. “I have tried to heal with therapy and self-help books, but what has been most effective is finding a community of other women of color offline and through social media,” Gupta told Bustle. “They remind me that I'm not alone, that I'm not defective, and that I have the power to change our broken systems,” she says. Some initiatives, like the Jewish Women of Color Resiliency Circle, aim to provide spaces where folks can heal from racial trauma.

It's important to remember that racism is a social problem that impacts every level of the lives of those who are impacted by it, even their physical health or their life expectancy. Medical professionals should begin to research the effects of racial trauma in more depth, so that they can come up with innovative treatments. And hopefully, one day, there will be real solutions to this problem.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.