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May is Mental Health Month: The Impact of Racism on Mental Health in France

On Tuesday, May 14th, I had the great pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Rokhaya Diallo on the Impact of Racism on Mental Health in France organized by O'Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law.

Racisme et Santé Mentale: Une Conversation avec Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve O'Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law

Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, author, filmmaker, and activist for racial, gender, and religious equality. According to The New York Times, she is “one of France's most prominent anti-racism activists.” Diallo is known for her vocal stance on these issues and frequently faces online harassment from right-wing and extreme right-wing voices. In France, the term “woke” has become an insult, but I personally view it as a compliment. I greatly admire her work and activism. Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve is a Franco-Tunisian psychiatrist and writer. I first encountered her work during the pandemic when I listened to a podcast episode about her conversations with non-white patients facing hardships due to racism.


The conversation began with Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve explaining how experiencing racism, both in childhood and daily life, creates trauma. She highlighted the additional trauma caused by media portrayals of non-white French citizens by journalists and pseudo-experts on TV. She emphasized the urgency of addressing these issues as we navigate a global shift that necessitates making these topics political.


As a psychiatrist, Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve believes in treating all patients with the same care and compassion, asserting that we should be able to relate to anyone’s pain as fellow humans. She mentioned Frantz Omar Fanon, a French Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, political philosopher, and Marxist from Martinique. Like Fanon, she advocates for a radical universalism in medical practice, ensuring that no patient is mistreated because of their identity.


Fanon argued that Western medicine often ignores the specific needs of colonized populations, criticizing a "one-size-fits-all" approach that overlooks cultural beliefs, socioeconomic realities, and the impact of colonialism on health. He stressed the importance of understanding patients' lived experiences and the significance of a doctor's capacity to relate to a patient's background and cultural context.


Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve noted that patients are increasingly seeking healthcare professionals with similar backgrounds to avoid discrimination and the need to explain their cultural context during appointments. The hosts discussed the term "Mediterranean syndrome," a stereotype that affects the perception and treatment of patients from Mediterranean regions, including North Africa. This bias can lead to symptoms being downplayed, attributed to a supposed cultural propensity for exaggeration or drama, resulting in systemic discrimination within the healthcare system.


The consequences of this bias can be severe. Rokhaya Diallo mentioned cases of Black patients who died after healthcare professionals minimized their pain or ignored their symptoms. For example, a study revealed that white men receive better care in emergency rooms than Black women. Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve also highlighted that Black women have higher rates of cesarean sections and that certain psychiatric treatments are less frequently given to people of color due to these biases. It echoes to a recent article you can find here.


Moreover, she highlighted the lack of interest from public actors in addressing these issues, which are often swept under the rug. The impact of racism creates intense self-hate, pushing many people of color to erase any trace of their ethnicity, belief, style, and appearance to fit into the dominant white group. In her practice, she encourages patients to celebrate their origins and backgrounds rather than feel ashamed.


Racism's impact on mental health is profound. Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve described how patients develop anxiety, depression, fear of public transport and crowds, and avoidance of public speaking. These manifestations can be likened to PTSD, with microaggressions, comments, and acts of racism creating real psychological aftereffects.


Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve emphasized the importance of training healthcare professionals on these issues and has seen genuine enthusiasm among her colleagues. She advises parents to discuss their cultures with their children, highlighting the richness of their heritage and the values their ancestors contributed to France. She stressed the need to dismantle the notion of a cultural hierarchy with whiteness at the top. Dr Bouvet de la Maisonneuve has some reservations about an ethnocentric approach, as it might confine patients to predefined categories not of their own making..


This exchange was rich and necessary. I identified completely with everything Dr. Bouvet de la Maisonneuve and Rokhaya Diallo shared. My goal is to keep working towards a less biased and more equitable world in any way I can.


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