Inequality and racism affect mental health because they create additional challenges for people in poor communities and communities of color. Many people have to live with being unemployed and being shot at or arrested by the police. I have had to struggle with these things, and it broke me down mentally countless times. I have fought to overcome these obstacles, but it has been hard, and not everyone has the resources to fight back.
Growing up in Washington Heights, I watched my family struggle because my parents could not find jobs that paid well. I had to learn how to deal with not being able to do things. When I attended middle school, certain programs would reject me based on my name or appearance. I was too young to understand then, but when I grew older, the same things would happen to me. Living in New York City can be very stressful and expensive. Not everyone has the education or connections to become a CEO. Although I was a child, I worried about each of my parents having to work two jobs in order to take care of my siblings and me.
Another problem that affects our mental health is our criminal justice system. The police should be the ones to help us and protect us, but they don’t; instead, they neglect us, or worse, target us. In my neighborhood, I have been a victim of police harassment and brutality. My first encounter with the police came when I was only 13. My friends and I were playing in the park when the police approached us and aggressively stated that a robbery had occurred in the same park we were playing in. A friend of mine stood up for us and told the officer we had nothing to do with it and that we were only 13. This didn’t stop the policeman from tossing my friend on the concrete. Since then I’ve tried to avoid the police. If the police see you with a nice car in a “bad” community, they assume you did something illegal to get it, and they harass you for it. Not all cops are bad people, but often police label people of color as a threat, so we have to live with the fear of being targeted by the people who are supposed to protect us.
Inequality and racism create stress and affect your mental health. One way to change this problem is to bring awareness to it. For example, you could can start by noticing that many of the challenges you have faced are not your fault. If you blame yourself, that only adds to the stress. By making changes within, you can help to break the cycle. You can also make more noise for yourself and the others in your community that you love and care for. Together, you and your community can fight for policies that will bring about better jobs and better policing.
The more we voice our concerns, the more things will change. These acts can lead to more opportunities and open more doors. It’s up to us to make a difference.
Nyasia Smiley is 21 years old and was born and raised in New York City. She studies at the New York City Department of Education’s Mid-Manhattan Adult Learning Center. Her teacher is Kamala Redd.