The Mental Effects of Racism on the Latinx Community

Hispanic woman wearing pink sweater and jeans near window

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It’s been proven that Hispanics and Latino Americans are one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. However, this certainly hasn’t mitigated the stereotypes and instances of racial discrimination that these individuals experience by and large throughout this country. Read on to learn how racism impacts the health of those who belong to the Latinx community.

Impact on Mental and Physical Health

Like many marginalized groups, many Hispanics and Latin Americans deal with racism from childhood well into adulthood. If this issue goes completely unaddressed, these experiences can have lasting effects on an individual's psyche and self-confidence.

Poor Self-Esteem

According to James Rodriguez, PhD, LCSW, a psychologist and director of trauma-informed services at the NYU McSilver Institute, although they [experiences with racism] are not always obvious and overt instances, patterns of microaggressions can deeply impact the self-esteem and mental health of Latinx individuals. 

“More and more research has come out over the last decades on the impacts of racism and discrimination, which can sometimes be a traumatic event [like being called a racial slur] when it is indeed covert and obvious, or microaggressions [such as being subjected to racial stereotypes], or examples of chronic stressors that people can go through,” Rodriguez explains. “The science is [shows] that it goes well beyond self-esteem."

James Rodriguez, PhD, LCSW

Racism and discrimination in all its forms, including microaggressions can lead to a poor sense of well-being.

— James Rodriguez, PhD, LCSW

Physical Stress

A 2017 study in Race and Social Problems showed that acculturated Latinos (measured in terms of language preference) were more likely to experience physical stress from perceived racial microaggressions after accounting for social and demographic factors. This stress was linked to overall poorer self-rated health for the same group.

But even more specifically, it could also be and contribute to more serious mental health disorders, like depression, anxiety, and suicidality, Rodriguez says. Not only that, but it can contribute to various physical health outcomes, including inflammatory diseases, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and blood pressure, and oftentimes social problems like alcohol and substance abuse.

“It’s important to note that these mechanisms can differ from one individual to another, but it's critically important to understand that racism and discrimination can lead to very severe physical and mental health difficulties and social problems that we see in young people,” he says. “When folks are treated as less than and marginalized in society, they certainly can internalize that stigma and negative messages about themselves into poor mental health and also poor self-perception.”

Confronting Racism

According to Rodriguez, conversations are key when it comes to avoiding extreme health outcomes that manifest as a result of the stress brought on by racial discrimination.

“Talking about racism and discrimination is, is critically important, but what makes it difficult sometimes is that microaggressions almost by definition are intentional or unintentional,” he says.

Examples of this include someone saying you're articulate because you look like you speak another language or are visibly Latino, with the perception being that you're unique and different and wouldn't be assumed to be intelligent.

However, those kinds of messages can make it tricky for people to decide what’s worth confronting and naming it, Rodriguez says. But talking about it and being clear and giving people space to talk about those different forms of discrimination can be critically important in raising awareness.

While most people would like to believe racist environments have lessened over the last few decades, microaggressions have actually grown to be more mainstream, Rodriguez says. Many people can recognize them better, but some people, particularly children, are often not equipped to process and initiate discussions about racial discrimination at the same level as adults, who are more keenly aware of them. Even so, kids are still able to feel that marginalization, which is why these conversations are key.

Colorism

It’s key to also include the topic of cultural racism, or racism across groups in your discussions and conversations, Rodriguez says. Colorism can lead people to discriminate against others within their own ethnic group.

Additionally, some people may not realize that racism is not always a conflict between Whites and people of color, but rather it can sometimes occur within groups enforcing racism and discriminatory messages within themselves.

Coping Mechanisms

There isn’t one linear way to cope with direct experiences with racism, though, Rodriguez says. Some people might develop their own coping strategies and decide that they'd rather not confront it and they choose to find their own ways of coping.

Some coping methods might include talking to friends about it, talking to others about it, or sharing their experiences with others who go through the same thing.

“Sometimes that collective experience can be helpful in connecting with others who do understand, and who have similar lived experiences with it,” he says. “So some people may decide that they're going to channel that anger and that energy into whatever they do to help and cope, whether that's exercising, or listening to music, or other ways."

“Giving people permission to respond in whatever way is helpful to them is a critically important piece of helping people to process and deal with and address those exposures,” he continues. “Some people also engage in collective action, really championing anti-racism and engaging in a collective activity and collective action against racism.”

How Parents and Caregivers Can Help

Parents and caregivers of young children can play an important role in helping their kids to recognize when they’re experiencing racism and potentially equip them with the tools to handle and respond to it.

 “Sometimes, unless the parent themselves has been able to explore these issues and discuss these issues, there might not be those opportunities for teaching and learning and helping young children approach that and deal with those kinds of issues,” Rodriguez says. 

Schools are also slowly starting to develop materials and provide guidance on how to facilitate discussions with children about their exposure to racism and discrimination, whether they're on the receiving end or if they witness it.

Some parents may find children's books and books for youth to be helpful when it comes to starting or having conversations about the impact of racism and discrimination.

Other helpful resource recommendations from Rodriguez include online resources provided by the American Psychological Association and Therapy for Latinx, which contains a search engine to find mental health providers in Latinx communities.

A Word From Verywell

While each individual might have their own preferred ways of confronting someone marginalizing them, it’s key for these conversations to be happening within Latinx communities, including within families and in educational settings.

By recognizing these issues are happening to both adults and children, you take steps to arm yourself with the appropriate resources to help reduce poor mental health outcomes in the long term.

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  1. Anderson, K.F., Finch, J.K. The Role of Racial Microaggressions, Stress, and Acculturation in Understanding Latino Health Outcomes in the USARace Soc Probl 9, 218–233 (2017).