Speaking Out About Racism Boosts Your Mental Health

Suppressing the anger and pain can actively damage what psychology researchers call ‘psychological fortitude’

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

I bottled up my rage and despair for the first few days after George Floyd’s death.

It wasn’t because I wasn’t full of rage and despair — I was. My brain was slowly frying. The video of Floyd’s last moments was unavoidable; my mom, who I live with, kept the news on 24/7. But I was concerned that anything I could say out loud had already been said. There were so many activists, writers, and thought leaders speaking out about being Black in America. I wasn’t sure how to add to the conversation.

Finally, at my teletherapy session the Tuesday after Floyd’s death, I began the work of unspooling my pent-up despair. I told my therapist how I was even more afraid to leave my house now than at the start of the pandemic. I admitted to her, and to myself, that most of my despair stemmed from feeling like the people in charge of this country didn’t care if I lived or died. It was the first time I’d expressed that out loud.

My therapist’s suggestion: Write about it. Put it down on paper, even if no one but her would read it. “You’re a writer,” she said. “Expressing yourself is so important. You need to get these feelings out.”

Since then, I’ve been making an effort to unpack — in writing and in conversation — how interpersonal and systemic racism has affected me, both in the past and currently. There’s been a lot to discuss in the past two months. Marches and protests in support of Black lives have reached nearly every town in America. Multiple industries, including media and publishing, have had public reckonings on how people of color are discriminated against and paid less than white people doing similar work. Every time one of these movements has touched my life, I’ve talked about it to whoever will listen: my wonderfully Black therapist, my friends, my family. I do get afraid that I’ve become a broken record, but also? My head doesn’t contain a fog of despair anymore.

“By you personally sharing the story of your experience and naming it as racial trauma, it allows you the opportunity to work through some of the pain, some of the emotional response.”

It’s not just me: Psychologists have found that talking or writing about racism can improve Black people’s mental health in various ways. Rheeda Walker, PhD, author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health, uses the term “psychological fortitude” to refer to the resilience that Black people need to build in order to endure and recover from tough situations. According to Walker, processing and sharing emotions externally will help Black people maintain that psychological fortitude.

“When we keep stuff in, it tends not to be a good thing. It’s kind of like [the] psychological phenomenon of suppression. So if you cope with stuff by just keeping it on the inside, it ends up bubbling up in other ways. Sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s irritability, like the least little thing happens and it’s like a match goes off. So when you can get stuff out in a way that’s appropriate, that is helpful so that it doesn’t show up in ways that are unexpected,” Walker tells Elemental.

This suppression — keeping the pain and anger of racism inside — can also happen when a person of color does not have the language or framework to recognize when something bad happened because of racism. When I was in middle school and high school, commuting to school in a predominately white town, I didn’t know much about systemic racism. When kids asked questions about my hair, or said they couldn’t see me at night, or when police cars followed me as I drove out of town, I thought I was the problem. Believing that something was wrong with me, and keeping that belief to myself, left me with bottled-up feelings of inferiority that festered for years after I graduated. I wonder what my self-esteem would have been like if I had someone there to discuss what was going on.

Helen A. Neville, PhD, professor of educational psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is one of the co-authors of a community healing framework called Community Healing and Resistance Through Storytelling (C-HeARTS). A main idea behind the framework is that storytelling is an important component to healing from racial trauma.

“Storytelling is part of our cultural traditions, whether you’re Igbo or Xhosa or other Indigenous groups. Storytelling allows people to name the experience. By you personally sharing the story of your experience and naming it as racial trauma, it allows you the opportunity to work through some of the pain, some of the emotional response,” Neville says. “There really is a path that you’re able to name [racism], other people see it, they bear witness to it [and] they validate [you].”

Responding to racism now, both past and present, has wildly helped my mood. It’s helped me remember that the system is broken — that maybe all systems are broken.

Since the George Floyd protests began, past and current students of color at my old high school have been speaking out on Facebook and Instagram about their experiences with racism while enrolled. I’ve been keeping up with the movement, voraciously reading the stories that get posted to the Facebook page, seeking out any mention of the kinds of things I went through. My close friend and former classmate, who is Hispanic, and I have talked for hours about what I experienced and what she’s seen secondhand.

I’m finally experiencing the validation central to C-HeARTS, and recognizing how the feelings of inferiority I’ve struggled with since childhood began when I was feeling like an other as a kid. I’m getting the chance, almost a decade later, to externalize those incidents.

“[When] you externalize the issue, the issue lies outside of yourself,” Neville says. “It’s really the situation that is racist. It allows you to begin to think about what are your options of responding. So you have agency. Part of the ways of responding, it could be through activism, it could be through confronting people, challenging people — there’s a whole range of ways one can respond to challenge and disrupt racism.”

Responding to racism now, both past and present, has wildly helped my mood. It’s helped me remember that the system is broken — that maybe all systems are broken. It feels so good to text my friends about something that has happened, and to get a validating response of, “Yeah, it’s messed up.” Speaking up reaffirms that the problem is with the world: not me.

Journalist and essayist based in Los Angeles. Words in WIRED, Elemental, Los Angeleno. Follow me at @quinciwho.

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