Racism victims ‘struggle to access mental health support’

Study warns lack of ethnic minority representation among counselling staff could lead to problems being dismissed

February 8, 2021
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Ethnic minority staff in higher education struggle to access appropriate mental health support, particularly when it comes to the impact of racial discrimination on their mental well-being, a new paper warns.

For the study, published in Higher Education, Jason Arday, deputy dean (people and culture) and associate professor in sociology at Durham University, surveyed and interviewed 40 ethnic minority academic and professional staff across 14 UK universities about their experience of racism in the sector and its impact upon their mental health.

He found that while their experiences of racism had a clear impact on their mental well-being, participants reported that their symptoms were often dismissed by healthcare professionals.

“Culturally and structurally universities were not equipped to deal with BME experiences of mental illness”, Dr Arday writes.

Many participants said that it was difficult to talk to healthcare professionals within universities about potential symptoms of mental ill health because their experience of racism was trivialised.

“When you then go and speak to a healthcare professional at university that thinks you are being hypersensitive or paranoid, it is really disconcerting and makes you feel even further isolated when you cannot rely on mental health professionals to assist you in your time of need,” explained one male black academic.

“The collective consensus among participants was that there was a chasm in healthcare professionals’ knowledge regarding dealing with patients that were continuously encountering racism on a daily basis,” Dr Arday writes. This was often attributed to the lack of ethnic minority mental health professionals working in the sector. Healthcare professionals seldom understand the more insidious and subtle examples of racism, including constant micro-aggressions.

One female professional staff participant explained: “They could not even empathise or conceptualise what it is like to encounter racism on a daily basis in a very subtle and insidious way.” This was compounded for staff for whom English was a second language.

Participants also explained that they felt they had to self-censor for fear of making the white professionals they were speaking to uncomfortable or upsetting them.

Many also said that their fear of being stigmatised led to them putting off seeking help.

“My fear is receiving an inappropriate investigation into my psychological state, which would compromise my position at work and place me at further risk of discrimination, in addition to the racial discrimination I already face on a continual basis,” a female academic explained.

While there has been a deserved increase in attention in the sector on the mental well-being of academics, much less attention has been paid to those whose experiences of mental illness are exacerbated by encounters of racism within the academy, Dr Arday writes. “The physical and mental well-being of BME staff within universities remains an afterthought.”

Dr Arday told Times Higher Education that the “trivialisation or neutralisation of their experiences [when speaking to healthcare professionals] was palpable” throughout the interviews with ethnic minority staff. “It’s incredibly sad…and we need to see real action and tangible changes,” he said.

The need for targeted psychological interventions to better support ethnic minorities in dealing with their racialised experiences was crucial, he said. Without it, staff will miss out on the ability to progress professionally or could even leave the profession, he added.

This will require universities to properly invest resources, Dr Arday said. “It is about ensuring that we have diverse and racially cognisant mental health practitioners, as well listening to and engaging with ethnic minority staff about what they need.”


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