The Depression & Anxiety of Racism

Last week, I wrote a bit about the Black Lives Matters movement and the incredible stress and strain that racism is causing people of color. This is a topic that I really think demands further exploration.

First, I mentioned it last week, but check this article out in more depth. Rates of anxiety and depression spiked, hard, for African & Asian Americans in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Among African Americans, positive screenings for these disorders rose from 36% to 41%, while they increased from 28% to 34% among Asian Americans. Those are all significant increases.

Interestingly enough, it did not increase for members of the Hispanic population. I’d be curious to better understand why that is the case, but that’s for another day.

Tragically, the reason we have this data is because the federal government was attempting to track the impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations, which, as we know, has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic. One tragedy upon another.

If these findings are accurate and representative of the increasing rates of mental illness among the general public, it means that at least two million more people experienced mental illness as the result of the murder of George Floyd. These are horrifying numbers, but they really aren’t all that surprising.

We know, definitively, that external forces can increase rates of mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and suicide all rise in times of economic turmoil and it makes tragic sense that a group of people who are under perpetual attack at an individual and societal level would experience rising rates of mental illness when a horrific video showed a slow-motion murder.

What does this mean? Again, the good news…such as it is…is that we, as a society, are having a larger conversation about systemic racism. I worry that too much of the conversation has focused on police brutality and criminal justice reform. That is important, no question, and its the primary issue in front of us at the moment. However, we cannot lose sight of the impact that centuries of racism have had on countless other areas of life.

One of those must be mental health.

As a white man, I cannot personally understand the impact of racism on mental health. But the literature and personal experience of countless people of color are clear. Racism means lost opportunities. It means personal pain and lives destroyed. It also means the trauma of watching countless people who look and act like you being gunned down by the men and women who are supposed to protect you.

What’s my point of this entry? The article above proves it: Police brutality and systemic racism mean depression. They mean mental health. And as we have a conversation about what Black Lives Matters means, we cannot forget this vitally important component of addressing and ending systemic racism.

Six Questions with Leslie Stella, author of Permanent Record

I gotta say – one of the most fun things about this blog, at least to me, is learning how other authors approach depression, and the unique spins that they give on the issue. Last week’s interview, for example, dealt with cyber-bullying and self-harm. This one’s is with Leslie Stella, author of Permanent Record, who deals with racism, terrorism and a post 9/11 world.

From the description:

Being yourself can be such a bad idea. For sixteen-year-old Badi Hessamizadeh, life is a series of humiliations. After withdrawing from public school under mysterious circumstances, Badi enters Magnificat Academy. To make things “easier,” his dad has even given him a new name: Bud Hess. Grappling with his Iranian-American identity, clinical depression, bullying, and a barely bottled rage, Bud is an outcast who copes by resorting to small revenges and covert acts of defiance, but the pressures of his home life, plummeting grades, and the unrequited affection of his new friend, Nikki, prime him for a more dangerous revolution. Strange letters to the editor begin to appear in Magnificat’s newspaper, hinting that some tragedy will befall the school. Suspicion falls on Bud, and he and Nikki struggle to uncover the real culprit and clear Bud’s name. Permanent Record explodes with dark humor, emotional depth, and a powerful look at the ways the bullied fight back.


Your book not only deals with depression, but it also deals with some very heavy societal issues—racial identity and terrorism. What inspired you to address this subject?

I wanted to explore several themes: 1) bullying, and the fine line between standing up for yourself and taking revenge, 2) the relationship between mental health, outsider status, and bullying, and 3) how a teen targeted for his racial identity might retaliate. Funneling these three concerns into the experience of one protagonist made for a gripping story, one in which readers must wrestle with themselves about whether the protagonist is justified in his actions.

As noted in your book’s description, your main character, an Iranian American, is pressured by his family to hide his identity. This is a common issue faced by many teens. How do you think this impacts someone’s mental health?

Ignoring the interplay between mental health and outsider status is a sure way to court disaster, either for the outsider himself or society. Sublimating one’s identity (whether it’s racial, gender-based, or any other facet that contributes to the makeup of a person) always backfires; you cannot grow as a human being if you deny those very facets that make you whole.

How can authors approach subjects like this with authenticity, even if it isn’t their lived experience?

Speaking for myself, if I wrote about only my own experiences, I would subject my readership to a never-ending glut of books about office work. The purpose of literature is to transport the reader—and that usually means transporting the author as well. It’s called imagination and research. Use them! They are your friends.

In Permanent Record, the protagonist’s Persian background was based on a family that my family was close to when I was in high school. My sister dated one of the brothers, and I worked for the parents for several years at a store they owned. I learned so much about Persian culture from them, including the dynamics within the family and what is expected of the children—especially the difference between expectations of the daughters versus the sons.

The book was written in 2013, but, unfortunately, many of its themes seem more relevant than ever. If you had to write the book again now, with Donald Trump as president, what would be the same, and what would be different?

Like so many things, terrorism begins at home. The ritual of school violence in our country is a brand of home-grown terrorism that our society has decided it will tolerate. If I had written Permanent Record today, with Donald Trump as president, I would likely have the covert displays of racism present as overt. People aren’t any different today than they were previously; it’s that they feel free to parade their prejudices and hatred more openly.

In looking at this book, it seems to me that it can apply to two groups: Members of the “majority” community who are looking to get a better understanding of what life is like to those who are minorities, or members of the minority community, like Badi, who are looking for a character to identify with. Did you have one of these audiences in mind more than the other?

 Why must these two great tastes be mutually exclusive? In the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of fiction, the writer’s job is to hold a mirror up to the world so that we can see not only ourselves but everyone else as well.

In a social media friendly world, what’s the role of books—like yours—in terms of addressing mental health and the stigma which surrounds it?

People usually feel alone when they struggle with their mental health, and social media exacerbates this: “Gee, everyone else on Facebook seems so happy; their children pose readily with handmade signs, while I’m taking pictures of squirrels ransacking my birdfeeder.” At the same time, I’m not a fan of people using social media as a substitute for therapy. A book, however, can delve deep into these problems in a way that is personal and intimate and three-dimensional, which is something a tweet or post can never do. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I relate better to complex fictional characters better than I do with most real-live people with whom I have human contact. So in that sense, I hope Badi’s struggles with depression inform readers about the complexities of mental health and the many options for treatment out there.