Racism affects both physical and mental health

July 10, 2023

As a determinant of health, racism has a profound impact on child well-being. Its many negative effects for racialized young people include:

  • restricted access to resources, such as housing, education and employment;
  • increased exposure to negative experiences, such as racist incidents and unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system;
  • increased engagement in unhealthy behaviours to cope with the stresses of racism, such as substance use; and
  • increased rates of physical injury as a result of violence.

To investigate the effects of racism on social and emotional well-being, researchers combined findings from more than 120 observational studies involving young people from
birth through age 18. Most of these studies were conducted in the United States, although
Canada and many other countries were also represented. Drawing on the experiences of
Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous children, the meta-analysis found many significant
links between racial discrimination and poorer well-being. Mental health concerns were
the most frequent, including depression, anxiety and conduct problems, as well as self-esteem and self-worth concerns.

Racism also has detrimental effects on children’s physical health. A study that included more than 95,000 American children aged 18 and younger found that those who experienced racial discrimination had a significantly lower likelihood of reporting that they were in excellent health, compared with those who did not have such experiences. As well, children exposed to racial discrimination were more likely to experience common childhood illnesses. The physical impact of racism also starts early, with low birth weights and preterm births being linked to maternal experiences of racial discrimination.

For more information, see Vol. 15, No. 3 of the Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly.