Racism is a Public Health Crisis

As the Derek Chauvin trial is going on for the next few weeks, many Black Americans are reliving the trauma of the murder of George Floyd from May 2020. This is a very emotional experience for those who are faced with systemic oppression every day. We cannot deny any longer that racism is a public health crisis. It has been proven that racism can cause poor health in Black Americans — not only due to the lack of access to health care, but due to the mental and physical toll on their bodies.

From PubMed: When another breaking news story inevitably takes center stage and pushes the violence into the background, we still feel that pain. Black people don’t have the luxury of moving on when the media does.

This deep-seated pain, stemming from inherited racial trauma and modern examples of injustice, adversely affects the health of Black Americans, both mentally and physically. The measure of wear and tear on the body caused by chronic stress, and some studies suggest that “weathering” the effects of racism, may shorten average life spans for Black people, over time.

“Anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal issues, and elevated blood pressure” are just some of the medical issues that could “point to poor stress management,” said Olivia Affuso, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

We also must remember that:

1. Mr. Floyd was taking prescription medication (oxycontin) for a bad back that led to an opioid-use disorder. Economic barriers make drug treatment inaccessible for many Black Americans. PubMed says: “The publicly funded substance abuse treatment system is a critical resource for people with addiction disorders in the United States, yet services in the public system are often fragmented, underfunded, and difficult to access.” In rural communities, this disparity is exacerbated more for Black Americans due to systemic racism.

2. Although it is unclear whether Mr. Floyd had access to mental health care, after his mother’s death in 2018, his drug use accelerated in a form of self medication for anxiety and depression. There is a perceived stigma in the Black community concerning mental health treatment because Black people have already “been through it all” — chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, and other forces of oppression. Combined with the historical distrust of the medical community and the lack of access to mental health care, it can lead to disastrous effects.

White patients receive treatment for opioid-use disorder more than any other racial population and in fact, only 23% of Black patients receive a prescription for an opioid-use disorder. “We shouldn’t see differences this large,” lead author Pooja Lagisetty, MD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, said in a news release. “As the number of Americans with opioid-use disorder grows, we need to increase access to treatment for Black and low-income populations and be thoughtful about how we reach all those who could benefit from this treatment.”

We must treat drug-use disorders and mental health as seriously as we do physical health. As well, we need to not see people with drug-use disorders as discardable. We must believe that everyone deserves to thrive and we must attempt to find causation for mental health and drug-use disorders, just as we do physical health. We must do better in terms of the health of those disportionality affected due to the lack of adequate healthcare, especially Black and low-income populations.

“We all have a responsibility to create a just society” ~ Bryan Stevenson

community organizer / intersectional feminist / Take That & NKOTB fan / fashion enthusiast

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