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12/10/2017 11:38 EST | Updated 01/31/2018 20:21 EST

Racism Is Wreaking Havoc On Our Mental Health, Says Policy Expert Uppala Chandrasekera

"You need to start from a place of, 'Racism exists, and what are we going to do about it?"

Uppala Chandrasekera attends a Toronto Police Services Board meeting on Oct. 26, 2017.
Andrew Francis Wallace via Getty Images
Uppala Chandrasekera attends a Toronto Police Services Board meeting on Oct. 26, 2017.

Uppala Chandraesekera had just arrived in Canada as a refugee from Sri Lanka when she got her first taste of racism in this country. It was decades ago, when she was just a kid.

"I must have been a little over eight, and two teenagers in a car drove by and called me a 'Paki,'' she says.

Chandrasekera was confused. She wasn't Pakistani, she was Sri Lankan. Then her friend apologized. "We were eight, and she got what that meant, that it was a derogatory term."

That was just the beginning of her experience with racism in Canada.

Watch: Chandrasekera shares how her experiences as a refugee and racialized person in Canada have influenced her work.

Today, Chandrasekera is the director of public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario and more recently, the first mental health expert appointed to the Toronto Police Services Board. Her work focuses on anti-racism, anti-oppression, and how inequality affects health and mental health.

The gist of her message: we need to start from the assumption that racism exists — because it can damage the mental health of racialized people in insidious ways.

HuffPost Canada spoke to Chandrasekera in advance of the United Nations' annual Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

Can you talk a little bit about what you've seen in your work and the ways that racism prevents access to human rights?

There are lots of myths around that race is a biological construct. It's not. It's a social construct. And because it's a social construct, it actually impacts every social aspect of our lives. So there are layers of how racism is enacted.

A few years ago, [the Wellesley Institute, a policy think tank in Toronto] did this study that looked at how are racialized people excluded from the labour market. What they found is that ... for every dollar earned by a white man, a racialized woman makes only 66.5 cents. And a racialized man only makes 75.6 cents. We know that there's an actual barrier in terms of the labour market, and we know that access to income and jobs and the labour market has a direct impact on health.

Another piece could be environmental exposure. So, if you live in a community that is over-policed, or has a higher level of scrutiny — or for example, you live in northern communities in Canada, where there are very little resources, and very little access to health care — that has an impact on your health.

The piece around racism that is so insidious is that it's constant.Uppala Chandrasekera

So the effects on mental health result in an increase in chronic stress levels, and so it might exacerbate some conditions that you already have.

Because of these chronic stressors, you might actually resort to unhealthy coping mechanism and coping behaviours. You might turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with this. And then, that's still your health, and then there's another layer, which is racism might actually be a barrier in accessing health-care services.

For example, you might try to access services where your health-care provider says, "Oh, no, you're just imagining it." Because they're making assumptions about you. These are implicit assumptions that we all carry about people. We don't live on an island, we live in this society, we're all taught racism. And so, they might actually have a total barrier to health care.

And on the flip side, there's lots of research that talks about the over-diagnosis of racialized people with certain conditions ... research that looks at, for example, black men tend to be over-diagnosed with more severe mental health and addictions issues like schizophrenia. That, again, is grounded in these implicit assumptions. So the piece around race and racism being a social construct is really important.

Nicolas McComber via Getty Images

How do people who are in the dominant community go about unlearning, and how do we address internalized racism?

A lot of people think that "slavery, colonialism happened hundreds of years ago. It has nothing to do with me; I'm not directly responsible for them." And the piece to understand is that in today's society, we perhaps didn't engage in those horrible acts hundreds of years ago; however, there is an inter-generational impact from those actions.

We need to kind of actively learn to understand what happened in our history, so that we can see what the impact of that is. And a really great example is residential schools in Canada.

I didn't come to Canada until I was eight. I did not grow up learning about that in the school system, and only as an adult and as a health-care professional have I really learned what the impact of the residential schools has been on Indigenous people in this country.

The Canadian Press
Residential school survivor Lorna Standingready is comforted by a fellow survivor in the audience during the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on June 3, 2015.

And that's why it's so important to remember that in moments of racism, those are traumatic moments and ... either we're not willing to or we don't have the capacity to deal with that. When an incident happens today, you might not process it ... some people are so fast to say, "Oh, there goes that angry coloured girl again."

And so they say that was a disproportionate response to that small thing that happened on the subway or on the bus. But actually, when you think about it, [she] might not just be reacting to what happened today, but the incident that happened 10 days ago, or 10 months ago, or 10 years ago, or the very first moment, and it's compounding impact, because you're re-living it.

The piece around racism that is so insidious is that it's constant, and the piece around unlearning these things and supporting people in those moments is that validating someone's experience of racism is so important. Because oftentimes, racialized people walk around thinking, "Oh, that probably was just in my head. Did that really happen, did that person actually say that to me? Or that subtle insult, was it actually directed at me?"

I think one of the things is, sometimes you don't even know you hold all of these internalized beliefs. What's the right place for people to start?

I think a couple of things. We all should be striving to educate ourselves about the impact of injustices, and especially when thinking about racism. An activity I've done in the past that's been super helpful is — I think it's Harvard Medical School — they did an implicit assumption test, and actually Malcolm Gladwell writes about it in his book, Blink. It's an online test you can take and it's called The Implicit Association Test.

It gives you pictures and images and words and gives you a few seconds to click. It will show you a picture of a gun and a racialized person, or a picture of a flower and a white person, and it tests how you associate positive things and negative things. And then what it spits out is how, what your implicit assumptions about people are. And I think doing a test like that is really eye-opening.

Anti-racism is an action or an engagement. It's not enough to write about it, it's not enough to talk about it, you actually have to do it.Uppala Chandrasekera

So reaching out to these tools that can help you see what it is that we're doing is really important. So that's kind of a personal self-reflection piece.

The next piece is in moments when racism happens. It's so important ... anti-racism is an action or an engagement. It's not enough to write about it, it's not enough to talk about it, you actually have to do it.

Can you talk about some of the implicit assumptions [about mental health]?

When we think about people with mental health and addictions issues, the social perception immediately goes to the link between violence and mental health issues. A lot of people believe that people with mental health issues are violent. So about five, six years ago, we actually looked at this, and we looked at the research around violence and mental health and what we actually found was that people with mental health issues, they're no more likely to be violent than the general population. There's no causal link between violence and mental health.

But what we actually found was that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. And the assumptions that people with mental health issues may be violent are at the core of the stigma around mental health issues. That's why so many people don't share their experiences, or don't come out and talk about it. When you combine that with fear or assumptions about racialized people, added, it compounds that impact.

How do you think institutions should be responding?

I would say any organization, whether policing, or health care, or any sector really, you need to start from a place of, 'Racism exists, and what are we going to do about it?' Because we've spent far too many years trying to build a case that racism exists, and we need to start with that it does exist, because we see the differential impact in the justice system, where racialized people are overpopulating our correctional [facilities]. And we see that in the health-care system, in huge health disparities among racialized populations.

So, if we start from a place of, this exists and how are we going to change it, it's a far easier conversation, but it's also in a way that is not blaming, or shaming, or guilting people.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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