White structures of mental health services can prevent young people from getting help

As mental health services have been constructed on the terms of whiteness, young people of colour are often left without the help they need. Tuuli Kurki investigates the potential effects of racism on young people’s mental health.

When young people of colour (POC) experience mental distress, this is easily considered to be the result of unsuccessful integration, their immigrant-ness or cultural differences. Racism, mental health and young people of colour (RaMePOC), a research project carried out by Postdoctoral Researcher Tuuli Kurki, challenges this way of thinking by turning the gaze on structural problems faced by young POC in their everyday lives, racism and prejudices in particular. POC stands for people of colour, and in Finland the term non-white is also commonly used in this context. The Academy of Finland awarded a three-year grant to the project in the spring 2020.

In the United Kingdom and the United States, racism’s impact on mental health has been investigated for some time. Also in Sweden, a number of studies on the topic have been launched, but in Finland it is quite a new subject of research.

“Not much research on the topic has been conducted in Finland. The effects of racism on mental health has received some attention in the media, for example, thanks to, among others, the solution-focused brief therapist Michaela Moua, one of the project partners. Prior research on experiences of racism back up the project, but we are at the same time breaking new ground, since there are only few points of comparison in the previous research focusing specifically on young people,” Kurki says.

In fact, one of Kurki’s first research tasks has been to collect data and statistics from a range of sources, as the mental health of young people of colour has been touched upon in previous research only as part of broader research interests. Alongside documents and statistical material, data for the project is accumulated in Finland and the UK through observations and interviews. The goal is to produce data together with both professionals providing mental health services and young people of colour.

Earlier, Kurki has worked at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences and as an associate expert of education policy at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Along with her new research project, she has transferred to the position of postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish School of Social Science.

“It’s great to get the chance to anchor my project specifically in the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN) and the Swedish School of Social Science. As stated by a panel assessing my project, this is the leading Nordic research community associated with my research theme.”

Guided to 'refugee services'

Kurki became interested in the interconnections between racism and mental health in conjunction with an earlier research project and after investigating racism in the education sector for over 10 years.

“Together with Postdoctoral Researcher Elina Ikävalko, a colleague of mine, we noticed that mental health services targeted at young people appeared really white. In the mental health work of third-sector organisations, for instance, not many young people of colour were seen,” Kurki notes.

In the mental health services field, discussion on racism has so far been scarce. In certain mental health associations this is already being acknowledged, and in the interviews conducted by Kurki, professionals have highlighted the fact that their services are not reaching young people of colour. Consequently, one of the goals of the project is to promote discussion with mental health service providers on how to reach them but also how to dismantle whiteness in mental health services.

Observing in detail the structures of mental health services constitutes an important part of Kurki’s project. She says that there are a lot of services and support available, for example, to refugees in the mental health services sector. The trouble is that young people who do not identify themselves as white Finns, but not as immigrants or refugees either, do not feel like they belong to the remit of ‘refugee services’, even though they are guided there, but they do not feel belonging to ‘white services’ either. In other words, the heart of the problem is structural, as the structures of mental health services remain white, which is why they remain unable to tackle the problem of racism.

“Discrimination, inequality and cultural sensitivity are being talked about in mental health services, but racism continues to get very little attention. The interviews I’ve already conducted with mental health service professionals convey a signal from the field, according to which it is in no way a racism-free zone.”

Indeed, Kurki is looking for a much more intense discussion on structural and institutional racism, calling for a broader understanding of the different forms of racism also in (mental) health services.

“Care work, such as mental health work, is often considered to be inherently striving for good. Of course, professionals aim to help and support young people, but you have to keep in mind that mental health work as an institution and the professionals working within that institution can be prone to racialisation: for example, professionals can be biased or they can maintain stereotypes on which they base their diagnoses as well as the therapies and support they provide.”

Racism as racism

For Kurki, research is not ‘just’ research, but also antiracist activism. For her part, she wishes to promote discussion on racism, dismantle stigmas associated with mental health and introduce new vocabulary to the discussion.

“It has been noted in a number of contexts that the Finnish concepts are inadequate when talking about racism and related issues. For example, there is no fluent translation available in Finnish for the term POC. I also wish that euphemisms were no longer used to cover up racism. Instead, we should refer to racism as racism. Then, we could move on from the fear of saying the ‘wrong’ things and from ‘white fragility’ to a discussion where we could together consider what an antiracist approach in mental health work could be like. Concepts change, develop and evolve continuously in this field, requiring constant alertness also from researchers.”

In addition to scholarly publications, one of the products of the project is planned to be a publication realised in cooperation with Michaela Moua and other POC professionals, providing young people of colour with information on racism and its effect on mental health as well as antiracist tools for mental health services professionals, in addition to which it will highlight services, POC professionals in particular, who will take into account in their work the effects of racism on mental health.