When racism ‘comes back to haunt you’, how do you manage your mental health?
Coronavirus is reminding people how racism takes a psychological toll, but there are ways to be resilient
Updated May 08, 2020 10:57:08
A recent string of coronavirus-related attacks against Asian-Australians has prompted many people to share their experiences with racism and the psychological impacts it has had on their lives.
- Psychological trauma from racist incidents may linger in the mind and body long after the event
- Experts say now’s the perfect time to identify and apply coping mechanisms to deal with trauma
- The Government has been urged to educate foreign students about accessing mental health services
Recent incidents include a Melbourne home being spray-painted with racist graffiti, tenants being evicted from a Perth rental accommodation, and one man in Sydney who ended his relationship with a woman who returned from China because he did not want to catch the virus.
But, in addition to the high-profile racist attacks, there are also what are believed to be the more insidious forms of racism that go unspoken and underreported in communities across Australia.
Racism manifests in covert and overt ways in Australia, affecting people’s relationships, careers, health, and even impacting the way that people are treated by authorities.
Experts say many people often have to bear the psychological consequences of racism in private, processing the incident (or incidents) in the days, weeks, and even years after they occur.
So how exactly do people cope with racism’s aftermath in the short and long term?
Rewiring racism’s neural residue
Angie Pai is a Melbourne-based artist who migrated to Australia with her family from Taiwan when she was six years old.
While the recent spate of coronavirus-related attacks may feed into people’s perceptions of a dichotomy between Asian and Anglo Australians, Ms Pai told the ABC it was also important to pay attention to racism within marginalised communities.
She cited an example when she was seven years old at a Melbourne primary school where a classmate of Chinese descent demanded that she had to hand over her earrings.
"She said, ‘Taiwanese people took everything from China, you took all the gold, so I deserve to have some of it back’," Ms Pai said.
"The most terrifying part was after school, she came over with her Mum who said to me, ‘You Taiwanese people are traitors — if my daughter wants those earrings, you give them to her’,
"Before I knew it, I was taking them out and handing them over myself … it was all done before my Mum picked me up."
The status of Taiwan has long been a sore point with China since the end of the Chinese Civil War. Beijing considers the island a rogue province, while many in Taipei continue to advocate for its complete independence.
While Ms Pai told the ABC she didn’t let the moment inform her opinion of mainland Chinese, she said it was a pivotal memory because "the most damaging instances [of racism] come from those who you expect to stand with you".
She said it was also one of her first memories of personal betrayal, which she later identified as a recurring "cycle of giving people power over me when I shouldn’t have".
"You don’t really recognise something having traumatic effects until the aftermath comes back to haunt you," she said.
"For me, previous incidents — which I maybe haven’t psychologically processed — left traces in my body that manifest as visceral reactions where I feel paralysed or nauseous in reaction to a stimulus."
Ms Pai said the primary way she’s coped in the aftermath of racist incidents is to use them as a means to "rewire neural pathways" in sessions with her psychologist, and more generally in conversations with close friends and family that may be uncomfortable.
Ms Pai, like many others engaged in psychological "rewiring", is working to redefine her relationship to trauma: a process that may allow the negative associations of a memory to shrink in size, or be turned into something personally transformative.
"The single most transformative lesson I’ve learned throughout all of this is the ability to speak openly in a safe environment where I can be totally vulnerable," Ms Pai said.
However, for the Pai family, racism is still very much a presence in their lives, given that Ms Pai’s mother and brother were abused in their car when they were stopped at a red light recently in Melbourne’s east.
Ms Pai said two schoolgirls reportedly walked up to her mother’s vehicle and spat at them.
"It’s unfortunate because it feels like any progress toward racial acceptance can be undone overnight," Ms Pai said.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
Responding to your needs
Queenie Wu is a Melbourne-based clinical psychologist who specialises in providing bilingual psychological services for Asian-Australian communities and international students from China.
Dr Wu said there were things that Asian residents in Australia could do to look after their mental health during this apparent spike in racist attacks.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
She said the first thing was to not shut down your emotional and physical needs in response to an incident.
"It is important to realise that there are real issues that can cause [a] significant toll on your mental and physical health," she said.
"We can’t control what people say, what people think and what people believe.
"We can’t control how the misinformation about COVID-19 [impacts] Asians, but we can control how we respond to those events, to those experiences."
Dr Wu added that seeking support from others and professionals could help facilitate healthy and adaptive coping mechanisms, while self-care exercises such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, drawing, journaling, or cooking could help people process their responses to past and present brushes with racism.
All Australians eligible for Medicare can access 10 subsidised individual and group psychologist sessions per year under the Commonwealth’s mental health care plan.
Until September 30, people can access these sessions online via the Government’s Telehealth platform, as most psychology suites have paused in-person appointments to align with partial lockdown requirements.
The Health Department’s Head to Health website also has a variety of free resources to assist people with mental health concerns surrounding COVID-19.
However, Dr Wu said the Federal Government needs to clarify how Telehealth could be incorporated into health insurance for international students.
"The Government needs to spend a bit of time educating the students about accessing those [services]," she said.
"There’s no better time than this chance to spend a moment to really look after yourself and take care of yourself, be present, and focus on what you can do."
Some European and British citizens are eligible for subsidised psychological care via Medicare, as their countries have a Reciprocal Healthcare Agreement with Australia.
All other nationals can access psychological services at full fees, however private health insurance may cover some the cost of this care.
Your questions on coronavirus answered:
Recognising racism’s triggers
Michael Platow, a professor of psychology at the Australian National University, told the ABC that coronavirus-related racism may stem from people’s beliefs being conflated with truth.
"Like the supposed ‘truth’ that COVID-19 is caused by China or Chinese people in some capacity," Professor Platow said.
"The question is, how did they get to that belief?"
The Professor, who is inviting all Australians to share their experiences of prejudice in a wide-ranging ANU study launched last month, said these beliefs may have stemmed from their information diets, either from mass media, social media, or paying attention to statements made by world leaders.
Both the Brazilian and the US governments have blamed China for the spread of coronavirus, with US President Donald Trump repeatedly calling coronavirus the "China virus".
However, Professor Platow said coronavirus is also providing people with ways to "express negative intergroup attitudes that people have already had".
He cited a reader’s comment under a Fox News article about the US travel ban to Europe, which said it was "good to stay away from Chinese and Jewish establishments".
He added this has also been observed in China, pointing to reports of discrimination against the African diaspora in China during the pandemic.
"It’s not as if Chinese are somehow also immune to the very psychological processes that everybody else has," he said.
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Reckoning with racism can be transformative
While the overwhelming weight of empirical research points to the fact that discrimination against marginalised groups has negative psychological consequences, a 2014 paper suggested that recognising discrimination can also be transformative for those subjected to it.
"Perceiving discrimination might hurt psychological well-being, but it is also critical for choosing effective coping strategies," the paper’s authors wrote.
It said these strategies could include identifying ways to avoid discriminatory situations, or move through life being critically aware of people’s biases "in order to improve chances in life".
In turn, by doing so, this could also clarify people’s sense of worth, given that someone’s personal or professional growth "might be determined by discrimination" rather than some personal failing.
In the same vein, Alice Pung, an award-winning Australian author and essayist, told the ABC that it was important to recognise that a racist incident speaks more about the aggressor than the subject.
"A lot of these racist people have an audience of one or two, and I think a lot of them feel disempowered and angry," Ms Pung said.
Ms Pung, whose Chinese-Cambodian parents escaped the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, added that her private brushes with racism articulated a "simplistic" form of racism.
"There was a man on the tram who didn’t talk to me, but asked my husband how much he bought me for," Ms Pung said.
"It’s interesting — I have this public voice, I write books — but when racist people look at me I’m just this mail-order bride who can’t speak English."
She said it was also important for Australians to be vigilant about the subtler forms of racism that don’t easily make the headlines.
"I don’t think people who graffiti other people’s garages know the differences [between Asian migrants] … to them we’re all crazy bat-eaters" Ms Pung said.
"Those in power, like politicians, understand quite well the particular nuances between Asian cultures better than the one-dimensional angry disenfranchised ‘street’ racists, but [politicians] still often choose a certain rhetoric that tars us all with the same hateful brushstrokes.
"They’re the ones you need to be careful about."
Share your racism story with us
We know that incidents of racism have elevated anxiety in Asian communities across Australia and an increasing number of people are now looking for solutions.
So, we want your help to get a better picture of what’s happening across Australia; to hear from people who have been subjected to racism or seen it take place.
Your identity will be treated as strictly confidential by the ABC, unless otherwise agreed with you, and any sensitive information you provide to us will not be published without your express permission.
For details about how the information we collect during crowdsourced investigations is handled, see the
First posted May 08, 2020 05:51:27
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