Racism is a Public Health Crisis

June 4, 2020

Megan Rochford, PCC-S

Program Director of NAMI Greater Cleveland


On May 29, 2020, Daniel H. Gillson, CEO of NAMI released a statement in response to recent racist events across the country and their impact on mental health. (See that statement here:  https://nami.org/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/2020/NAMI-s-Statement-On-Recent-Racist-Incidents-and-Mental-Health-Resources-for-African-Americans)

The next morning, NAMI Greater Cleveland and Peel Dem Layers Back collaborated on a live stream of “The Root of It All”, a virtual event to raise awareness of mental health, resources and support among young people from black and brown communities.  The event’s co-host, mental health activist Archie Green, read Daniel Gillson’s statement aloud at the conclusion of the livestream.

“Racism is a public health crisis”, Archie read.  “I’ll repeat that: Racism. Is. A. Public. Health. Crisis.”

That moment was electrifying.  In an event that was already super-charged with energy for mental health awareness and passion for eliminating stigma, Daniel Gillson’s fervent statement of support for people of color and their mental health reverberated in the souls of every Root of It All performer and speaker at the Beachland Ballroom sound stage, and everyone watching the livestream from living rooms, porches, kitchens, parks and backyards all across Greater Cleveland.

There is clear data that racism negatively impacts the lives of people of color throughout Cuyahoga County. Centuries of historical racism have created enormous disparities in our community and deprived black and brown communities of opportunities for employment, education, housing, public safety, nutrition and even access to medical care itself, all of which are social determinants of overall health and wellbeing.

Chronic and pervasive exposure to discrimination also inflicts a high level of stress and trauma on black and brown communities. Research on adverse childhood experiences, such as violence, hunger, parental divorce, or loss of a parent due to incarceration, has found that these events are disproportionately experienced by black children when compared to white children. Black children experience greater negative impacts on academic, behavioral, and physical health outcomes as a result.

Statistics show a national disparity between black and white infant mortality rates. Here in Ohio, black infant mortality rates are consistently ranked among the worst in the nation; in 2015, Cuyahoga County had the worst black infant mortality rate in the State of Ohio.

The effects of racism and discrimination are lifelong: the rate of poverty in the Cleveland metropolitan area for black residents is nearly double that of white residents, while the median income for white residents is over twice that of black residents.  The rates of chronic diseases, including asthma, diabetes, and hypertension, are significantly higher in predominantly black neighborhoods of Cleveland.  On average, black residents of Cleveland have a life expectancy that is 6 years less than that of their white neighbors.

After reading NAMI’s statement on the racist events of May 2020, Archie Green sang to an enthralled virtual audience from his virtual platform at the Beachland Ballroom, “We are all human beings. We all have the right to be here. It’s time that we all live free, that we love one another”, as heart emojis streamed across the screen.

Greater Clevelanders agree: they want a just and compassionate community.

Racism and racial trauma have real and savage effects on mental health in communities of color in Greater Cleveland.  There is much work to do to address racial injustice in Cuyahoga County. We must remember mental health, including equitable access to care, culturally competent care, and the extermination of discrimination, as we address the public health crisis that is racism.