How Scientific Racism Still Lives on in the US Mental Healthcare System
Black Voices of Mental Health,  Mental Health Education

How Scientific Racism Still Lives on in the US Mental Healthcare System

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Have you ever heard of Scientific Racism?

It’s a term you might be unfamiliar with, but it’s one we all need to know.

Scientific Racism was a movement originating in the 1600s. Back then it was referred to as racial biology, inspired by the work of biologists Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, and later, Franz Joseph Gall.

This pseudoscience aimed to “prove” that racial differences made Black people and members of other races/ethnicities biologically inferior to whites.

Using phrenology, craniometry, and other now discredited scientific practices, racial biology claimed that certain biological features like skull shape predisposed BIPOC to criminal and even animalistic attitudes.

In the 1800’s this movement would become known as Eugenics. This may sound familiar to you because it’s the ideology Hitler used in the 1940’s to justify his genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and people with disabilities.

How BIPOC Were Historically Affected By Scientific Racism

Because racial biology was widely accepted in the medical field, BIPOC were continually subjected to barbaric procedures over hundreds of years.

These included forced sterilization, surgery without anesthesia and the horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

Scientific Racism even stripped African slaves of their personhood. White social scientists helped deem slaves as “subhuman” therefore justifying their continued enslavement in a country founded upon Liberty and Justice for All.

All because of incorrect and racist beliefs about biology.

Scientific Racism and The Foundations of Mental Health Care in the United States

Of course, today we know racial biology for what it really is: a racist pseudoscience. But back in the 1800s, it was considered the law of the land. So much so that it is deeply woven into the very foundation of Medical and Mental Health Care in the United States.

Author Vanessa Jackson explains how Scientific Racism shaped the early Mental Health Care system. This is an excerpt from her book In Our Own Voices: African American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery in the Mental Health System

“Benjamin Rush, MD, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dean of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania and the “Father of American Psychiatry, “described Negroes as suffering from an affliction called Negritude, which was thought to be a mild form of leprosy. The only cure for the disorder was to become white.

It is unclear as to how many cases of Negritude were successfully treated. The irony of Dr. Rush’s medical observations was that he was a leading mental health reformer and co-founder of the first anti-slavery society in America. Dr. Rush’s portrait still adorns the official seal of the American Psychiatric Association”

Excerpt from Vanessa Jackson’s In Our Own Voices: African American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery in the Mental Health System

Jackson also notes that Behavioral Health Care facilities were often segregated. She writes it was because, “many leading mental health experts felt that it undermined the mental health of white patients to be housed with African-Americans.”

After the Civil War, a few facilities opened up for POC. However, they were often extremely substandard. Beatings, forced labor, and torture abounded. Black patients received little to no substantial treatment.

How Does Scientific Racism Affect Present Day Health Care?

Even though Scientific Racism was largely discredited after the 1950s, its effects are still felt strongly today.

Take this study published in 2016 by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences of the US. It reveals that 40% of med students surveyed believed the myth that Black people’s skin is thicker and therefore they feel less pain.

And that was just one of the racially based medical myths they seemed to believe. Yikes!

If that’s not shocking enough, let’s shift our focus to the Mental Health Care field.

Because of the persistence of scientifically based racist ideals; it’s harder for BIPOC to find culturally relevant Mental Health Care practitioners.

The origins of this problem occurred in the 1950s. Advances in science and medicine led to Mental Health jobs becoming more numerous. However, at that time, pretty much only white men were available for those jobs. Because of this, today only 24% of practitioners in the Psychology field are BIPOC.

BIPOC are less likely to have access to Mental Health Care in general. And when they do engage in treatment, they are far more likely to be misdiagnosed because of racially based medical stereotypes.

And those are just a few examples of how racism affects BIPOC interactions with the current Mental Health Care system. There are so many more out there, too many to even list in this small blog article.

What can you do About Scientific Racism in the Mental Health Care System?

Now that you know about Scientific Racism, here’s what you can do about it.

1. You can be a Champion for Mental Health Parity Laws

Mental Health Parity Laws, created by the ACA, ensure that insurance companies cannot charge extreme rates for Mental Health Care. It also keeps companies from denying coverage for Mental Health claims.

This makes the MH world a lot more equitable by making care more affordable for all people.

Unfortunately, even with a Federal mandate, most insurance companies have yet to fully comply with Parity laws. They will use every trick and loophole in the book to keep from paying out on MH claims.

This is where you can help.

  1. Report non-compliant insurance companies to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid: 1-877-267-2323 extension 6-1565 or at phig@cms.hhs.gov. You may also contact a benefit advisor in one of the Department of Labor’s regional offices at http://www.askebsa.dol.gov or by calling toll free at 1-866-444-3272.
  2. Check to see if your state is out of compliance with the Federal MHPAEA Act. If it is, demand change by writing to representatives
  3. Join the Kennedy Forum and Don’t Deny Me.org in demanding accountability from insurance companies wrongfully denying Mental Health coverage
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2. You can Educate Yourself and Others on the Topic

As always, knowledge is power. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to help.

The more you know - YouTube
..about Systemic Racism!

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Familiarize yourself with The ideals of Healing Justice and Mental Health Social Justice in the Black and LGBTQ+ communities
  2. Check out Mental Health America’s BIPOC Hub which provides studies, stats, tools, and resources to educate about racial disparities in Mental Health
  3. Scroll through this detailed time line of Eugenics and Scientific Racism
  4. Read this in-depth article from Smithsonian Magazine detailing the history of Scientific Racism and how it persists today

3. You can Work to Reduce Systemic Racism at All Levels

Racism is systemic, meaning it’s in the bones of pretty much every US institution. Behavioral Health, Policing, Government, Medical Health, Schools, and Prisons are all connected by the thread of systemic racism.

Racism - Effects

You can’t make sustainable change in one and not another. Or else the whole thing will collapse. Here’s how you can work to reform all facets of the system:

  1. Vote! Vote for candidates who push for reform centered around correcting racial disparities. Or you could run for office yourself.
  2. Be a voice for justice in your everyday life. Speak up in everyday places that tend to unknowingly uphold structures of system racism. These are places like PTA meetings, school board meetings, public hearings, and even church meetings.
  3. Be vocal and educational. Add posts about systemic racism and social justice to your social feeds to educate others
  4. Start a conversation. Start and/or participate in discourse on systemic racism, even if it’s hard. Just remember to let Black and Brown voices take the lead in those conversations.
  5. Protect Black Lives. BIPOC in a Mental Health crisis are at greater risk of harm due to intervening authorities. Protect Black Lives during police interventions by being present and recording the interaction. If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s a great guide: What to Do When You See a Black Person Stopped By the Cops: A Step-by-Step Guide for White People

Wrap Up

Scientific Racism may seem very wtf to us now but it wasn’t always that way. It used to be just…mainstream science, which is a scary thought.

That’s why it’s so important to notice and denounce racism in the everyday, not just in its extremes. Systemic change isn’t done in a day, it’s created by small yet consistent actions. Change is created by people like you and me.

If you’d like to see a more equitable Mental Health Care system I invite you to contact your state representatives using this tool and ask them to support stronger enforcement of the Parity Act. It’s a great start.

Much Love,

MB

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

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