Race and cultural identity

How do issues of race and cultural identity affect mental health?

Challenges around race and cultural identity vary enormously, including topics of discrimination, racism, and intergenerational trauma.

While these aspects of identity are often sources of strength and support, they can also contribute to stress or pain in an individual’s life. For example, a person may be discriminated against on the basis of their racial or cultural identity, or they may experience conflict between their own desires and the expectations of their culture. In some cases, they can cause common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

What is meant by race and cultural identity?

Race and cultural identity refer to any aspect of identity that is connected to your racial, ethnic or cultural background, and/or the ways that that background affects your life today.

Although race, ethnicity, and culture are subjective categories that mean different things to different people, most individuals identify with at least one – and often several – of the groups that fall under this umbrella. These identities may overlap and interact with other aspects of personal identity, including nationality, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, or regional background.

 How common are challenges around race and cultural identity?

Because these issues are not clinically defined mental health conditions, there is little research on their overall prevalence. They are also tied to such basic aspects of individuals’ lives that it can be difficult to trace how frequently concerns around identity develop into worrisome mental health patterns.

However, the fields of psychology and social science generally acknowledge that racial and cultural identity are common contributors to mental health challenges.

Some researchers have defined race-related stress as a near-universal struggle for individuals from marginalized racial groups, and the American Psychological Association recently launched a project to promote dialogue about race-related stress.

What are symptoms of mental health challenges related to race and cultural identity?

Symptoms associated with racial and cultural identity issues vary widely, but some common examples are as follows:

  • Anxiety: You may find yourself feeling worried, preoccupied, or unable to relax.

  • Sadness or feelings of hopelessness: You might feel persistently unhappy, lacking in energy, or struggling to face day-to-day challenges.

  • Fear or anger that feels difficult to manage: While fear and anger can be rational and even helpful responses to racial or cultural discrimination, you may be overwhelmed by these feelings and find that they interfere with your daily life.

  • Feeling isolated: Racial and cultural identity challenges often involve a struggle to figure out how one fits into various, sometimes conflicting, communities and social roles.

  • Paranoia: Because racism and discrimination are often subtle, an individual may feel that they have been the victim of an act of discrimination without feeling certain that such an act actually occurred. This uncertainty can lead to self-doubt and paranoia.

What are examples of challenges related to race and cultural identity?

Racial and cultural identity issues come in many forms, but a few common scenarios include:

  • Interpersonal discrimination: Many people face racial and/or cultural discrimination on a direct, personal level. For example, discrimination by a racist boss might lead to stress at work.

  • Structural and institutional discrimination: Large-scale racial and cultural inequalities are entrenched in many modern-day societies. Understanding and facing these forms of discrimination can be stressful and upsetting.

  • Micro-aggressions: Everyday subtle blows that are racially charged. These can be verbal or nonverbal. 

  • Questioning one’s identity: You might be unsure of how to live with different aspects of your racial or cultural identities, or you might wonder how to balance your personal values with those of your racial or cultural background.

  • Events that challenge one’s identity: Moving to a new location, entering a new life phase, or becoming involved in new social circles can all bring up questions around racial and cultural identity.

What to do if you’re experiencing challenges around race and cultural identity

If any aspect of your racial and/or cultural identity is causing you stress, worry, or pain, you might consider the following courses of action:

  • Resource centers: Many communities have resource centers devoted to supporting specific racial and cultural groups. These organizations can help you take action in your community and meet other people who share your challenges. Because having a strong sense of racial or cultural identity can lessen the negative impacts of discrimination, you may find that these experiences improve your mood.

    • Try searching the internet for “resource center” and your zip code to see what’s available in your area.

    • Where applicable, seek communities within these centers, such as volunteer organizations, dance teams, etc.

  • Creative pursuits: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative arts can all be powerful ways to explore your identity and find an increased sense of peace in your day-to-day life.

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you explore your challenges and work with you on techniques to alleviate your symptoms and improve your mood.

What should I look for in a therapist for challenges around race and cultural identity?

Therapists differ in their approaches to treating challenges around racial and cultural identity. Common approaches include:

Find therapists specializing in race and cultural identity near you

Find therapists who specialize in race and cultural identity issues on Zencare, below. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.