There are many factors that make individuals susceptible to mental health problems. Often these factors take the form of some kind of physical, psychological or emotional trauma and then there are the cases that have a high level of genetic susceptibility. If I pointed out that Muslim people would be more likely to suffer from mental health problems, that would probably be accepted, due to the current society we live in and the marginalisation of this religious group. However, if I pointed out that mixed raced people, and in particular mixed raced children are just as susceptible to mental health problems this would likely be more surprising to most. But, unfortunately this is true.
Mixed Race Mental Health
A 2003 study by Dr J. Richard Udry, Dr Rose Maria Li and Dr Janet Hendrickson studied the mental health risks of mixed raced adolescents compared to those that identify with a single race and the findings were worrying to say the least. Risk variables such as smoking and drinking, general health and school experiences were used and the response from mixed raced adolescents indicated higher risk on all variables. This study has been backed up furtherby Dinah Morley, author of Mixed Experiences: Growing up mixed race – mental health and well-being. Morley reports that mixed raced children are often at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems due to poor self-esteem, hostile and rejecting relationships as well as discrimination from both black and white peers. She also claims that public services are not adequately equipped to provide the help and support that mixed race youths need. She advises that new approaches are needed that are not only effective but that also promote access and directly respond to their needs.
Why are Mixed Raced Adolescents More Susceptible to Mental Illness?
Now that you are aware of the risk, you need to know why that risk is present in the first place. The most common explanation and the most widely accepted one is that mixed race adolescents face a far greater struggle with identity formation than those that are a member of a single race. This struggle can result in a lack of self-esteem, social isolation and in some cases family problems due to living in a mixed race household.
A Struggle with Identity
It’s human nature to categorize, to fit everything snuggly into the appropriate box and individuals who are born of more than one race are not easily categorized. I have a relatively dark skin tone so I can easily pass as a light skinned black woman, however this is not what I am and not how I identify myself. The fact that I identify as mixed raced has never stopped others from putting me into the box that they see as appropriate. Now as an adult I can deal with this, I have the confidence in myself to speak up about this but as a teenager it was a very different story. This among many other things makes forming an identity incredibly difficult for many mixed raced individuals and not knowing who you are or where you belong can have a significant impact on mental health.
Why is identity so important?
Humans are biologically programmed to belong in groups. We are essentially pack animals and we like to surround ourselves with people we consider our own kind. Don’t get me wrong this does not begin and end with race, it could be to do with religion, moral values and even music taste. However, race is often the first way that we connect with people ‘like us’. For individuals of a single race this begins at home, with parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins that all belong to one race, that have similar facial features, body shapes and skin tones. For mixed raced people it’s not so easy, right from birth they are completely on their own, they won’t look the same as their mum or dad and in a lot cases they won’t even be that similar to their siblings due to the huge amount of genetic variation in mixed raced DNA. This immediately forces them to look outside of their inner circle to find where they fit in, searching for a place to belong among their peers, often they find themselves just as different in this environment as they are at home. They may not be bullied, or ridiculed or suffer racial abuse, they may be the most popular person in their school but they may still feel different.
For most single race individuals their search for a core identity begins around 16 years old, and the factors involved revolve around how they wish to present themselves to the outside world. They begin to think about a career path, about the values and beliefs that they hold. They may become a vegetarian or dedicate themselves to human rights. These are big issues that will help to form the identity they will carry through adulthood, and it’s difficult for everyone to navigate this time. However, the difference is that they have a strong base to work from. They know that they can go home and blend in, go to school and blend in, go to work and blend in. They will know that the way people view them is who they are. Nobody will be asking them where they are from. They will never have to explain why their siblings are a completely different colour to them, mixed raced adolescents don’t have this luxury and right from the age of 4 they will be able to recognise and distinguish between skin colours forcing them to begin the search for a core identity at a much younger age and often putting pressure on them that a young mind struggles to deal with. This is where the risk of mental illness comes in and as a parent of a mixed raced child it’s important for you to be aware of this. However, it’s not all bad….
Positives to be gained from identifying as mixed raced
Adolescence will likely be more difficult for mixed raced children, but if they have the right support and guidance they will come out the other side stronger and more self-assured than people of a single race. Once mixed raced people are able to identify with both parts of their heritage and understand the complexities of it, they open themselves up to a world of possibilities. They will no longer be constricted by racial bias, they will be able to function well in both majority and minority environments and they will be less likely to behave in a way that is seen as acceptable for a certain race. It is far less likely that these individuals will succumb to damaging stereotypes and this is because they have had the opportunity to choose who they are and who they want to be.
Nothing worth having is ever easy, and I can honestly say now at the tender age of 22 I am completely comfortable with myself. Most of my friends are struggling right now, they have problems with the way they look, the way they dress and the job they’ve chosen. But I’ve been there and done that, I’ve hated myself, I’ve done everything I can to ‘fit in’ only to realise that the only person that needs to accept me is myself. I am confident and proud of the person I have become and your child will be too. ~By Lauren Riley
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