man holding hand hospital bed

We all need to take personal responsibility for our health. Smoking, drinking, too much sugar and too little exercise are well-established contributors to poor individual and population health. But social determinants of health can have a greater influence on an individual’s wellbeing than their health behaviours or access to health services[1]. This means that optimal health for individuals can only be achieved by remedying the social conditions that influence health behaviours or limit access to health care or the effectiveness of health interventions.

Unfortunately, we know less about the effects of social determinants of health than we do about lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise.

There’s no exhaustive list of the social determinants of health. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare defers to a 2003 publication by the World Health Organisation Europe, which states that “the social determinants of health included socioeconomic position, early life, social exclusion, work, unemployment, social support, addiction, food and transportation.”[2] This statement overlooks an important social determinant of health that intersects with others in the list: racism.


Racism is a social determinant of health

Racism is “the inability or refusal to recognise the rights, needs, dignity, or value of people of particular races or geographical origins. More widely, the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples.”[3]

Racism manifests in many ways, but generally falls under three categories:

  1. Interpersonal racism, like racist comments directed at individuals or about groups
  2. Systemic or structural racism, like policies and practices that reinforce privilege or oppression based on race, or the enduring effects of history
  3. Internalised racism, which develops from lived experience.

Experience of racism by several different racial groups, in a variety of countries, is consistently associated with poor mental and physical health, independent of effects of age, sex, birthplace and education level[4].

Racism has a stronger effect on mental health than physical health, but its associations with a variety of health conditions demonstrate its wide-ranging impact. It reduces many measures of general mental health, wellbeing and overall positive mental health, and increases overall negative mental health.

Measures of overall and miscellaneous physical health, and general health, are reduced by racism.

Specific mental health consequences of racism:

  • Depression
  • Distress
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Internalising behaviours
  • Negative affect
  • Post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Somatisation (the manifestation of psychological distress by the presentation of physical symptoms)
  • Other mental health symptoms (e.g., paranoia, psychoticism)
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Lower control/mastery
  • Lower life satisfaction


Specific physical health consequences of racism:

  • Overweight


A lack of evidence for associations between racism and some other health conditions (e.g., cardiovascular disease[5], diabetes[6]) probably reflects a lack of research.

About two-thirds of subjects in studies of racism on health outcomes are female4, and (as remains the case for so many research studies) reporting of data by gender is poor, so we’re not sure about how racism might impact men and women differently. Racism is known to influence health service use and preventive health screening of African American men[7].


Racism and health in Australia

The contribution of racism to health inequality in Australia is only beginning to be appreciated but is likely significant. An effect of racism on the health of immigrants[8], for example, would be expected in a country like ours with a high immigrant population[9].

Racism has negative effects on the general health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, regardless of age[10], but its contribution to the incidence and severity of specific diseases in Indigenous Australians is largely unknown.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s mental and physical health is not only affected by racism directed at them but also at the people who care for them. As a result, the effects of racism will likely take generations to change.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men have the poorest health of all Australians. ‘Closing the gap’ is going to require action to reduce racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is worryingly prevalent in our country[11].


Addressing racism in health

Of course, we can all change our behaviour as individuals to reduce the prevalence of racism, but anti-racism approaches to address systemic racism in our healthcare systems are required[12].

Organisations need to recognise the contribution of racism to health inequality, identify how it may influence service provision, and institute changes to address it. A proposed framework for implementation of interventions to combat racism in healthcare settings12 appears below.

As a society, we have a long way to go to address racism and other social determinants of health. Our institutions need to take the lead, but we all have a role in helping to minimise the effect of racism on health.

We have personal responsibility for our own health, but also for the health of others.

A/Prof Tim Moss
A/Prof Tim Moss

Associate Professor Tim Moss has PhD in physiology and more than 20 years’ experience as a biomedical research scientist. Tim stepped away from his successful academic career at the end of 2019, to apply his skills in turning complicated scientific and medical knowledge into information that all people can use to improve their health and wellbeing. Tim has written for and Scientific American’s Observations blog, which is far more interesting than his authorship of over 150 academic publications. He has studied science communication at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science in New York, and at the Department of Biological Engineering Communication Lab at MIT in Boston.


[4] Paradies et al., 2015. Racism as a Determinant of Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE

[5] Javed et al., 2022. Race, Racism, and Cardiovascular Health: Applying a Social Determinants of Health Framework to Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes

[6] Hawkes & Lipman, 2021. Racial Disparities in Pediatric Type 1 Diabetes: Yet Another Consequence of Structural Racism. Pediatrics

[7] Powell et al., 2019. Medical Mistrust, Racism, and Delays in Preventive Health Screening Among African-American Men. Behavioral Medicine

[8] Viruell-Fuentes et al., 2012. More than culture: Structural racism, intersectionality theory, and immigrant health. Social Science & Medicine

[10] Kairuz et al., 2021. Impact of racism and discrimination on physical and mental health among Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples living in Australia: a systematic scoping review. BMC Public Health

[11] Beyond Blue, 2014. Discrimination against Indigenous Australians: A snapshot of the views of non-Indigenous people aged 25–44.

[12] Hassen et al., 2021. Implementing Anti-Racism Interventions in Healthcare Settings: A Scoping Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

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