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To mark Children's Mental Health Week, this blog explores themes around racism and young people, based on the Emerging Minds' Voices, Powers and Attitudes Challenge. Written by Fiyory Ghezae, an intern with the Emerging Minds Network.

Abstract painting of a split face, depicting split identities © @conorofficiel

It’s important to start by highlighting that now, more than ever, it is okay not to feel okay. With the current uncertain circumstances and general change in day-to-day life, many are struggling with their mental health. If you’re finding this time difficult, please do reach out to loved ones, friends, or professionals.

The effects of racial discrimination on youth mental health in the UK isn’t spoken about enough! In fact, I’m currently working on a scoping review and am struggling to find research that directly addresses this topic. To start tackling this, I alongside other young people from the Emerging Minds Network recently led a discussion on this topic for our Voices, Powers and Attitudes challenge and felt it was important to share some of the themes. This challenge explores how racism affects children and young people’s mental health in the UK. It is one of four challenges that were prioritised by young people, parents and carers, and a broad group of stakeholders to focus on in order to improve mental health promotion, prevention and early treatment for children and young people.

To start, let us talk about how many assume that racism in the UK is deemed “not that bad” compared to other countries because it’s not as direct. Well, I’m here to tell you that any form of racism is bad and, if you have experienced it, your feelings and experiences are valid!

black and white drawing of a faceless head (with the word © Ronni Winter @projectrnz

Racism in the UK may, at first glance, feel subtle. However, people widely report experiences of systemic and institutional racism. This is racism that is a part of day-to-day life. A few examples were highlighted in our discussion include negative media portrayal, the grouping of ‘BAME’, and a general lack of representation, particularly in decision-making and policy. Another example is the ‘school to prison pipeline’, this describes how young people from Black, Asian Minority Ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be put in detention at school, be excluded, expelled and, eventually, locked up. Stop and search was also discussed, which unfortunately affects young black boys disproportionately.

It was clear from our discussions that racism can have a huge negative long-lasting effect on youth mental health. Feeling like the system is failing you, being unfairly labelled as a bad person, the feeling of not belonging, being feared by strangers and generational trauma being passed down were all mentioned. Ever felt like you do not belong in a place, even when you have every right to be there? A lot of people feel like this when applying to prestigious schools for example. We call it imposter syndrome. Did your parents ever tell you that “you need to work twice as hard”? You could be the smartest kid in your class or have all the grades needed for your desired university… but that your name, skin colour, basically your identity, will be used against you.  Were you ever told to have your hair a certain way (e.g., straight) to look “presentable?” As young people from Black Asian Minority Ethnic backgrounds, many of our parents have faced racial discrimination and, as a result, this is how they express their fears and ideas. This appears to be a form of ‘indirect’ or ‘second-hand’ racism; trauma gets passed through the generations and can lead to people feeling inadequate within their own skin.

As a result of these negative feelings, many young people in our discussions expressed ways in which they change their behaviour to reduce the likelihood of being racially discriminated against. For example, do you have a phone voice or ever speak to your friends in slang, and then switch it up when speaking to teachers, your boss, basically anyone you feel is important?  Look at that, you have the skill of code switching - this is where you feel the need to speak a certain way to “sound professional” to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this skill seems to be very common, especially for those of us that are not white.

The examples above are just a few from many, there’s a clear need for research to better understand the impacts of racism on children and young people’s mental health and how to address it. We need to understand how to make sure young people know that their feelings are valid. We hear you, we receive it and we’re actively working to make changes. I hope my internship with the Emerging Minds Network will highlight the key areas that young people feel need to be addressed and will continue to push the importance of including young people in this conversation. 

Written by Fiyory Ghezae, Emerging Minds Network