Beyond the El Paso shooting: Racist words and acts harm kids’ health | Science News for Students

Beyond the El Paso shooting: Racist words and acts harm kids’ health

U.S. doctors are tackling racism as a public health issue — one that can cause lifelong harm
Aug 9, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a young girl leaves flowers at a memorial in El Paso, Texas on August 3, 2019

A young girl leaves flowers near the site of the August 3 El Paso, Texas, mass shooting. The alleged gunman was reportedly motivated by racism.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

A mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, last weekend killed at least 22 people. The dead include a teenager and two young adults. The gunman was reportedly motivated by racism. He had apparently posted hateful text online about people of color.

Being the target of racist acts, or even just seeing or hearing about them, can cause unhealthy levels of stress in children and adolescents. That’s the assessment of a new report. It was issued July 29 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

That new policy statement marks the first time the Academy has focused solely on racism. It explains how racism can harm children’s overall health. And it points to what doctors, parents and others can do to help, says Maria Trent. She coauthored the new Academy report. A pediatrician, she works at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. There, in Baltimore, Md., she specializes in adolescent medicine, seeing patients up to age 25.

Being the target of racist words and actions is stressful. Even just witnessing racist events can be intensely stressful. And when that stress occurs in childhood or adolescence, its effects can last a lifetime, the new Academy report warns. Evidence to support the harm that racism can have on health and well-being “is clear,” Trent and her colleagues write.

How racism harms

When someone has an experience that is stressful, it can trigger a fight-or-flight response. “The problem with racism,” Trent says, “is that, oftentimes, people experience that over and over again. So they never have a chance to recover. They always have to be vigilant.”

Prolonged fear and anxiety can lead to toxic levels of stress, Trent says. Children and teens that have experienced frequent racist events are at risk for heart disease, diabetes and symptoms of depression as young adults. So racism is harmful to a child’s development, mental health and physical health, her team writes in its new report.

“In order for young people to thrive,” Trent says, “they have to have a healthy sense of who they are. And that includes ethnic identity.”

Trent says the new report tackled the issue of racism because it poses a clear and present health threat to kids. “Racism is a socially transmitted disease. We pass it on to our children,” she says. It’s important that grown-ups “think about how their perspective, their speech, their behavior affects their children.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

adolescence     A transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.

adolescent     Someone in that transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.

anxiety     A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

behavior     The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

depression     A low spot, such as in a field or the surface of a rock. (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

development     (in biology) The growth of an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.

diabetes     A metabolic disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

fight-or-flight response     The body’s response to a threat, either real or imagined. During the fight-or-flight response, digestion shuts down as the body prepares to deal with the threat (fight) or to run away from it (flight).

mental health     A term for someone’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. It refers to how people behave on their own and how they interact with others. It includes how people make choices, handle stress and manage fear or anxiety. Poor mental health can be triggered by disease or merely reflect a short-term response to life’s challenges. It can occur in people of any age, from babies to the elderly.

pediatrician     A doctor who works in the field of medicine that has to do with children and especially child health. 

pediatrics     A field of medicine that has to do with children and especially child health. A doctor who works in this field is known as a pediatrician.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

policies     Plans, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.

Texas     The second largest state in the United States, located along the southern border with Mexico. It is about 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) long and covers an area of 696,000 square kilometers (268,581 square miles).

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

vigilant     (n. vigilance) The act of being intensely observant and careful. 


Journal:​ ​​ M. Trent et al. The impact of racism on child and adolescent healthPediatrics. Vol. 144, August 2019, e20191765.