‘My mental health was shattered by racism’

‘My mental health was shattered by racism’

Felicity Harley spoke to Tegan Murdock, founder of Love Yourself Sister, about the devastating effects of racism on her mental health and how creating her own fashion brand helped to heal the trauma she endured as proud Aboriginal woman from the Barkindji nation. 

Have you ever stopped and thought about how racism can affect health and wellbeing? Perhaps you’re dealing with this exact thing, or have dealt with it, or a friend is or, on the flipside, how your actions could’ve contributed to someone else’s emotional outlook – all because of skin colour. Well, I want you to meet Tegan Murdock. She’s a mother of two from Sydney whose mental health has been shattered by racism.

“From a very young age I knew all too well about [its impact],” says the 32-year-old aboriginal contemporary weaver. “My family lived in a small town and it was all around me. From being ignored in shops, followed around doing our weekly shop, to being racially vilified on the netball and basketball courts. To having KKK [Klu Klux Klan] running through our house as a kid, to seeing family being hurt for the colour of our skin. Our mental wellbeing was affected on so many levels – the hurt, the pain, the trauma is heartbreaking. Growing up this way has been so hard, I’ve been lucky enough to work my way through it and get to a better place – it’s been a long journey though.”

Black Lives Matter may have kicked-off an unprecedented global protest, but a broader discussion – and more education – on how racism infects people’s lives is what many of us are cheering for today. If you care about health and wellness (and I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this), you should know this: the mental health impacts of racism are real and every single one of us – no matter what our skin colour – can help to stop this. In fact, this has intrigued researchers for decades, it’s only now the rest of us are ripe for talking about it.

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The health impacts of racism are real

Fact: People of colour are at greater risk of mental health illnesses. A 2015 review of nearly 300 studies on the topic, published in Plos One, concluded people who experienced racism were unequivocally linked to poorer mental health outcomes – higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress. Experiencing racism can have detrimental physical consequences, too, like higher blood pressure and elevated stress levels.

Think about it this way, when the body senses a potentially harmful situation, our heart rate, breathing and blood pressure increase as stress hormones are released (hello, cavemen hunting wilder beasts). Today, people experience this when they encounter stressful situations (hello, daily discrimination), and the constant inflammatory reaction can also lead to health complications and chronic diseases.

A study from the University of Manchester took it one step further and was the first to examine repeated attacks, say over a lifetime. They found that accumulated (kind of like a dose-effect) racial attacks – feeling unsafe due to ethnicity, being shouted at or physically assaulted – can wreak havoc on a person’s mental health long after the initial attack, said lead author Dr Laia Becares.

In Australia, over half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who report racial discrimination also “report feelings of psychological distress, meaning they can go on to develop anxiety and depression,” according to Beyond Blue. Another Victorian study by The Lowitja Institute, showed a staggering 97 per cent surveyed experienced racism multiple times – subtle forms like being left out or avoided, to more harmful. And, get this, all forms were seen as equally detrimental to mental health.

Back to Tegan: “I went through a dark patch for a few years and it was a hard time for my family. I got through it by really taking care of myself, connecting to culture and getting a life coach, and through that I was able to get past everything that wasn’t serving me. Lots of walking, weaving and time out for myself were just a few coping strategies that helped me.” Her dark times inspired her to launch a clothing range, Love Yourself Sister.

“I wanted to create a brand that could be a daily reminder to women to put themselves first and to love yourself no matter what. We need to love the skin we are in, it doesn’t matter what society is trying to tell us to be like. We are all unique, beautiful and all have a gift to share.”

Yes, you can help stamp-out racism

Remember this, always: racism damages mental health. It’s a worrisome truth that racism has remained embedded in our culture for centuries, and to improve the health and wellbeing outcomes of those subjected to racism, we need to address racism itself. But I’ll leave that for another story… But what can you do today to help stamp out racism tomorrow, and in turn help someone’s (or your) mental wellbeing?

Here’s what Beyonce thinks: “[You must] demonstrate the value of a Black woman’s life,” she said on June 17 in an open letter about Breonna Taylor, a healthcare worker who was fatally shot inside her home on March 2020. Sure, these words were aimed at Kentucky police, but the message rings true for us all. We need to value people of colour in our communities, support their successes (check out Tegan’s business, Ngumpie Weaving) and educate ourselves.

“Words hurt, big or small, a joke or not – it all hurts,” says Tegan. “Be kind, be understanding, be empathetic and just spread love. We are all hurting in one way or another – let’s lift each other up. We are all one race, we are all human!”

Felicity Harley’s book, Balance & Other B.S is out now – follow her on Instagram for more.

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