Institutional Racism and It’s Affects on Mental Health and Addiction

An advocate for people of color seeking addiction and mental health services at a protest.

Table of Contents

America has a dark history regarding the lives and treatment of persons of color. Racism and oppression can affect the mental health of a person of color, and historically policies have negatively impacted the quality of living for many people of color, especially black Americans. In honor of Black History month, we will talk about how racism affects mental health and how those in the black community can seek resources for mental health and substance use disorder.

A Racial Double Standard

Due to the enormous stigma around black Americans and substance use, there tends to be a double standard regarding how we talk about and treat addiction in those communities. A person might approach a white person in addiction with more empathy than a black person. Someone might be quicker to judge a black person addicted to crack but have sympathy for a white person addicted to opioids.

This dynamic is also evident in the government’s response to both of these epidemics. Many activists believe that many affected communities were met with harsher punishment for possession and fewer resources for addiction prevention during the crack epidemic. In contrast, during the opioid epidemic, more focus is given to allocating resources that save lives. The differing responses to an epidemic that prominently hurts black communities versus one that affects a broader demographic causes harm and negatively impacts these communities.

The War on Drugs

Fifty years ago, President Nixon started what is known today as the War on Drugs. At the time, the drug-related policies were received positively, mainly due to racist propaganda that painted communities of color as dangerous and drug-riddled. The laws were presented as a means to help the nation battle what they felt was a problem in many communities where mainly black citizens lived. However, many decades later, it’s evident that these drug policies have done more harm than good.

Those affected by the War on Drugs experienced heightened policing, families torn apart by prison sentencing, and crippled financially, all over sometimes a simple drug possession. Many spaces for a while avoided talking about the War on Drugs because it became highly politicized, but there’s no denying the long-term effect these policies have had on the lives of people of color.

It’s Hard to Get Help

America’s violent and disturbing history of racial discrimination in healthcare has made it more difficult for black Americans to get help and feel safe while doing it. Discrimination has come in the form of violating human rights in the cases of Black Americans like Henrietta Lacks, whose human cells were used without her permission to further scientific research, or slaves in the 1700s and 1800s who were experimented on by doctors, often without the use of anesthesia. In modern times, people in the black community have mentioned nurses and doctors not trusting patients who express pain or symptoms. Some even believe in racial stereotypes, like people of color having thicker skin or higher pain tolerance.

A black person might also have a real fear of calling emergency services in the event of a mental health crisis or overdose. Calling 911 might mean the presence of a police officer. Many officer-involved shootings include a situation where the person was experiencing a mental health crisis. Furthermore, black Americans might face harsher consequences for seeking help in some cases. They are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for possession than white Americans, even if treatment and rehabilitation would be a better option for them.

When Your Community Won’t Talk About It

Mental health still isn’t a common topic in many communities, regardless of race. This is true especially for older generations who might be more conservative or traditional. Substance addiction and mental health still hold an enormous stigma, keeping many from seeking help out of fear of judgment from their community. To be clear, the black community isn’t a monolith. There are many differing opinions from all over the African and black diaspora. A single person’s opinion doesn’t represent the community as a whole. However, there are many similarities of thought among different groups within the black community.

For example, black men are less likely to receive treatment for mental health disorders and addiction than black women. There are many underlying causes of this, from pressure to uphold masculinity to fear of being feminized or seeming weak. Other reasons a person might not seek help is a misunderstanding of mental health or a belief that spirituality will save them instead of treatment.

Moving Forward Into an Inclusive Future

As we come to terms with racism in this country, we can only hope to move into a future where mental healthcare and addiction recovery can be more racially inclusive. Activists and educators work hard to fight stigmas and address inequalities. Steps in a positive direction would be hiring more therapists of color, educating staff on anti-racism, and addressing how current healthcare and criminal justice systems can contribute to institutional racism. These actions might not be the end all be all of combating racism, but they can indeed work as a starting point.

In 2020, protests across the country forced the U.S. to come to grips with the fact that racism still exists today. Black Americans are still affected by the structural racism that impacts their ability to receive the treatment and care that they need. Barriers and discriminations hold resources hostage while many suffer from the effects of addiction and mental health disorders that negatively impact wellness and quality of life. Every single person deserves care and empathy, regardless of their race. For that to happen, members of the recovery community need to understand the enormous inequity that still exists today for so many Americans of color. If you are interested in learning more about how racism can impact a person’s access to recovery or how you can be anti-racist moving forward in the future, we can give you some insight. For more information, call Jaywalker Lodge today at (866) 529-9255. We’re here to help.

author avatar
Stefan Bate, MA, LAC, CCTP Chief Clinical Officer
Stefan Bate, BA, MA, LAC holds a Master's Degree in Applied Psychology from Regis University and is a Licensed Addiction Counselor in the state of Colorado. Stefan has wide-ranging experience in the field of addiction recovery including: working as a recovery coach, therapist, and program director.

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