Racism and Mental Health

Riana Elyse Anderson, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, joins Michigan Minds to talk about health disparities in Black communities and how racism affects the mental health of African Americans.  


Knowing the negative impacts of racism and discrimination on the mental health and overall well-being of Black children and families, Anderson’s research focuses on how to intervene and eliminate these disparities. 

“In a nutshell, I think about how we drop-kick racism.”

She reflects on the past year and how in the spring of 2020 it became increasingly apparent to her that due to stark racial disparities, the fabric of the United States was starting to unravel.

“Once you started seeing those racial disparities, that fabric started to fray at the ends, and we saw what’s really been challenging to the fabric of the United States for hundreds of years, which is this disparate way that people are living,” Anderson says.

She adds that racism has existed through “every step of having multiple groups inhabit this land” and is what permeated the disparities seen because of COVID-19. 

“So the agent that frayed the fabric in the first place was now being the same thing that killed George Floyd,” she says. “That is part of the same fabric, this racism that’s just going and weaving throughout America.”

Anderson also explains how the pandemic and Floyd’s death negatively affected the mental health and well-being of individuals in Black communities.

“Not only did a global pandemic drive stress, anxiety, and depression threefold from what they normally would be at that time, you saw that with the murder of just one person, stress, anxiety, and depression shot up,” she explains.

Anderson said that policies and practices throughout history have contributed to ongoing disparities and, in the past year especially, increased stress and anxiety. 

In thinking about mental health care in particular, not only is access important, but encouraging utilization and ensuring the quality of care are just as vital, she says. 

“What I always tell students, mentees, anyone that I work with, is that you have to understand all of the predictors to our outcomes, and you have to understand the mediators, you have to understand the moderators, you have to understand the context,” she says. 

Anderson explains that some Black individuals may feel like they can’t share their concerns with others because of stereotypes that have existed throughout history. 

“All of those historical components are part and parcel of the actions or the beliefs that Black folks have toward mental health treatment. So that’s how we think about how the stigma plays out. They have different mental health outcomes, they have different predictors, so why would we not think about this model differently and how we need to reduce stigma appropriately, provide different types of health care, and provide new ways of thinking about mental health treatment differently,” she says.