Since the presidential election, American primary and secondary schools have seen a spike in hate crimes against black, Muslim and immigrant students. In this environment, it’s important for education professionals to acknowledge that racism poses a threat to students’ mental health. Discrimination undermines the physical, emotional and mental safety of younger students, and hinders their potential for academic achievement.
To successfully establish inclusive practices in a school setting, school officials must be able to identify the different ways discrimination manifests. The most obvious form of racism is blatant bullying and social exclusion, but there are also subtle ways it can manifest: Julian Weissglass at Edweek offers examples like education tracks that confine students of color to low-level class paths with less-experienced teachers and curriculum that excludes the country’s history of genocide against indigenous peoples and oppression of black Americans, as well as the study of literature by authors of color.
Numerous studies document how these types of failures in educational environments pose direct harm to students’ mental health. One such study by the University of Melbourne found strong relationships between racism and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, impaired resilience, and increased behavior problems among teens. The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Naomi Priest, said this can make students “less likely to engage in education, employment and other activities that support them to lead healthy and productive lives and to participate meaningfully in the community.” Racism, and even the threat of potential racism, has also been shown to switch on the body’s stress systems — meaning students who experience discrimination can be in a constant state of alarm that can spark a wide range of ailments.
Healthy People 2020 defines Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) as “conditions in one’s environment — where people are born, live, work, learn, play, and worship — that have a huge impact on how healthy certain individuals and communities are or are not.” A school health official — whether in the form of counselor, nurse or family nurse practitioner — can be instrumental in mitigating the impact of discrimination on vulnerable students’ health by acknowledging that experiencing racism is, in fact, a SDOH. They should then work to integrate mental health care into the primary and secondary education system, which increases access to care and the likelihood of treatment. It is vital that those with health and social work training help foster discussions with teachers and administrators to dismantle discriminatory educational structures, and educate both students and parents that are propagating or supporting racist behavior.
Discrimination is a public health threat that needs to be addressed through public policy. But as activists continue to work and lobby for grand-scale social justice reform, communities can provide support through on-the-ground interactions between students and their counselors and nurses.