Let’s talk about race


“I feel like my aggression is being racialized.” “Of course I wouldn’t call the cops if I felt like hurting myself. I’m Black.”

Dr. Sahana Malik, University of California, San Diego

Dr. Sahana Malik

Those statements represent the heightened trauma our Black and Brown patients with mental health issues have been experiencing. In the wake of increasingly publicized police brutality against Black and Brown communities, the role race plays in mental health decompensation is evident. At this moment in time, we must continue to improve our understanding of the role race plays in psychiatric disorders. We must also ask ourselves: At times, does psychiatry worsen the traumas of the communities we serve?

Some psychiatrists are afraid to speak about race. They may believe it to be too “political.” But avoiding these necessary conversations perpetuates the trauma of those we treat. It suggests that physicians are ignorant of an issue at the forefront of patients’ mental health. Psychiatry, today, is primarily focused on the biological aspects of disease. We must not forget that psychiatry is biopsychosocial. It is imperative that psychiatrists have conversations about race – and its significance to our patients and their care.

Our difficulty in discussing race in part comes from the lack of representation by Black and Brown psychiatrists. Only 10.4% of psychiatrists in the United States comprise those considered underrepresented in medicine (URM). Yet, those very groups make up 32.6% of the U.S. population and are overrepresented in psychiatric hospitals.1 Many studies have shown that concordant racial backgrounds between patient and physician lead to a more positive patient experience2 and arguably, the subsequent potential for better health outcomes. Our efforts in addressing this disparity often fall short. URM applicants may be hesitant to join an institution where diversity is lacking or where they may be the only minority.3 While there is no simple solution, I propose that psychiatrists promote the importance of mental health to Black and Brown students of all ages by collaborating with schools and community leaders.

It is important to acknowledge that the lack of diversity within psychiatry is reflective of that among all physicians. This in part stems from the barriers to medical education that Black and Brown communities face. Those who start off with more resources or have parents who are physicians are at an advantage when trying to get into medical school. In fact, one in five medical students have a parent who is a physician4 and about three-fourths of students come from families whose income falls among the top two quintiles.5 Impoverished communities, which have a disproportionate share of Black and Brown people, cannot afford to take MCAT preparatory classes or to accept unpaid “resume building” opportunities. Many medical schools continue to place more weight on test scores and research/medical experiences, despite a shift to a more holistic review process. Institutions that have tried a different approach and accepted students from more diverse backgrounds may often overlook the challenges that URM students face while in medical school and fail to provide appropriate support resources.

The result is a failure to retain such students. A study conducted at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University showed that those underrepresented in medicine were six times more likely to get dismissed from medical school, and three times more likely to both withdraw or graduate beyond 4 years, compared with their White counterparts.6 This is a serious issue that needs to change on a structural and systemic level.

Any discussion of race and psychiatry must acknowledge psychiatry’s history of racism against Black and Brown communities to engage in racially informed discussions with our patients. Only then can we play a better role advocating against racism within the field in the future. Dating back to the 18th century, psychiatry has promoted ideologies that promote racism. Benjamin Rush, considered the “father of American Psychiatry,” believed that Black skin was a disease derived from leprosy called “negritude.” In the late 19th century, this twisted ideology continued with the invention of the term “drapetomania,” which was used to describe enslaved people who ran away as having a mental disorder.7 Black prisoners were subjected to experimental treatment with substances such as LSD and bulbocapnine to subdue them.8 This idea that minorities were dangerous and needed to be subdued translated into a higher number of schizophrenia diagnoses, particularly among Black men, as it was used as a tool to vilify them in the 1970s. Although schizophrenia is equally prevalent among Whites and non-Whites, Black people are four times more likely to be diagnosed, compared with their White counterparts, while Hispanics are three times more likely. Studies have shown that Black and Brown men are also more likely to receive higher doses of antipsychotics.9

Given this history, it is not surprising that Black and Brown representation within the field is lacking and that patients may be hesitant to share their feelings about race with us. While we can’t change history, we can take a stance condemning the harmful behavior of the past. The American Psychiatric Association issued an apology earlier this year to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color for its support in structural racism.10 This is a step in the right direction, but we need more than statements or performative actions. We need to amplify the voices of Black and Brown psychiatrists and patients, as well as highlight their current and past contributions to the field. While my educational experiences focused on the work of prominent White scholars, medical curricula should showcase the work of people like Solomon Carter Fuller, MD, a Black psychiatrist who was essential to understanding Alzheimer’s, or Joseph White, PhD, sometimes referred to as the “godfather of Black psychology.”11

At times, I have found myself witness to situations where colleagues make statements that not only do not condemn racism, but in fact encourage it. I have unfortunately heard some use the all-too-familiar rhetoric of reverse racism, such as: “They just assume I am racist because I am a White male” or “They’re being racist against me” or statements like “Don’t you think it is far-fetched to believe she was just sitting on a college campus doing nothing when the police were called?” Rhetoric such as this is problematic to the field of psychiatry and medicine as a whole – and only serves to further invalidate the feelings of our Black and Brown patients. We must increase exposure and education regarding racism to address this, especially the meaning of microaggressions, a concept many fail to understand.

Attention to the subject of racism has increased within medical schools and residency training programs in the wake of George Floyd’s death. However, most programs often make these lectures optional or only have one to two limited sessions. Furthermore, many do not make it mandatory for faculty to attend; they are arguably the most in need of this training given that they set the precedent of how to practice psychiatry. Some institutions have incorporated comprehensive antiracist curriculums into medical training. One model that has been successful is the Social Justice and Health Equity program within Yale University’s psychiatry residency. The curriculum has four tracks:

  • Structural competency, which focuses on the mental health impact of extraclinical structures, for example a patient’s neighborhood and associated barriers of access.
  • Human experience, which explores the interaction of patients and providers and how biases play a role.
  • Advocacy, which teaches residents the written and oral skills to lobby for patient interests on a community and legislative level.
  • History of psychiatry, which focuses on understanding psychiatry’s prior role in racism.

In each track, there are group discussions, cases led by faculty, and meetings with community leaders. Through this curriculum, residents learn about power, privilege, and how to interact with and advocate for patients in a way that promotes equity, rather than racial disparity.12,13 This is a model that other psychiatric residency programs can promote, emulate, and benefit from.

Educating ourselves will hopefully lead to a deeper introspection of how we interact with patients and if we are promoting antiracism through our attitude and actions. Reflecting on my own personal practice, I have noted that the interplay of race, mental health, and provider decision-making becomes particularly complex when dealing with situations in which a patient exhibits increased aggression or agitation. As a second-year psychiatric resident immersed in the inpatient world, I have become familiar with patients at higher risk and greater need. The first attempt toward de-escalation involves verbal cues without any other more intrusive measures. If that fails, intramuscular (IM) medications are typically considered. If a patient has a history of aggressive behavior, the threshold to use IM medications can decrease dramatically. This is mainly to protect ourselves and our nursing staff and to prioritize safety. While I understand this rationale, I wonder about the patient’s experience. What constitutes “aggressive” behavior? For patients who have had violence used against them because of their race or who have suffered from police brutality, having police present or threatening IM medications will increasingly trigger them and escalate the situation. The aftermath can deepen the distrust of psychiatry by Black and Brown people.

How do we then handle such situations in a way that both protects our staff from physical harm and protects our patients from racial trauma? While I don’t have a great answer, I think we can benefit from standardizing what we consider aggressive behavior and have specific criteria that patients need to exhibit before administering an IM medication. In addition, discussions with the team, including residents, nurses, and attending physicians, about how to address an emergent situation before it actually happens are essential. Specifically discussing the patient’s history and race and how it may affect the situation is not something to be shied away from. Lastly, in the event that an IM medication is administered and police are present, debriefing with the patient afterward is necessary. The patient may not be willing or able to listen to you or trust you, but taking accountability and acknowledging what happened, justified or not, is a part of the process of rebuilding rapport.

Both in the purview of the individual psychiatrist and the field of psychiatry as a whole, we need to examine our behavior and not be afraid to make changes for the betterment of our patients. We must learn to talk about race with our patients and in the process, advocate for more representation of Black and Brown psychiatrists, understanding the barriers faced by these communities when pursuing the medical field. We must educate ourselves on psychiatry’s history, and equip ourselves with knowledge and tools to promote antiracism and shape psychiatry’s future. We can then apply these very tools to challenging situations we may encounter daily with the ultimate goal of improving the mental health of our patients. This is the only way we will progress and ensure that psychiatry is an equitable, antiracist field. As Ibram X. Kendi, PhD, has written, “The heartbeat of antiracism is self-reflection, recognition, admission, and fundamentally self-critique.”

Dr. Malik is a second-year psychiatry resident at the University of California, San Diego. She has a background in policy and grassroots organizing through her time working at the National Coalition for the Homeless and the Women’s Law Project. Dr. Malik has no disclosures.


1. Wyse R et al. Acad Psychiatry. 2020 Oct;44(5):523-30.

2. Cooper LA et al. Ann Intern Med. 2003;139:907-15.

3. Pierre JM et al. Acad Psychiatry. 2017;41:226-32.

4. Hartocollis A. “Getting into med school without hard sciences.” New York Times. 2010 Jul 29.

5. AAMC. An updated look at the economic diversity of U.S. medical students. Analysis in Brief. 2018 Oct;18(5).

6. Rainey ML. How do we retain minority health professions students. In: Smedley BD et al. The right thing to do, the smart thing to do: Enhancing diversity in the health professions: Summary of the Symposium on Diversity in Health Professions in Honor of Herbert W. Nickens, M.D. Institute of Medicine. National Academies Press. 2001.

7. Geller J. “Structural racism in American psychiatry and APA: Part 1.” Psychiatric News. 2020 Jun 23.

8. Mohr CL and Gordon JE. Tulane: The emergence of a modern university, 1945-1980. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge. 2001.

9. Metzl JM. The protest psychosis: How schizophrenia became a Black disease. Beacon Press. 2010.

10. APA’s apology to Black, indigenous and people of color for its support of structural racism in psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association. 2021 Jan 18.

11. Black pioneers in mental health. Mental Health America. 2021.

12. Belli B. For Yale’s emerging psychiatrists, confronting racism is in the curriculum. Yale News. 2020 Jul 30.

13. Jordan A and Jackson D. Social justice and health equity curriculum. Yale School of Medicine. 2019 Sep 24.

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