The Toll of Discrimination on Mental Health

29 February 2024

Milena Reljić

Discrimination is defined as the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, or sexual orientation, and is frequently motivated by fear and misunderstanding. Various studies, including one by academics from Harvard, Columbia, and Emory universities, have found that the victim's experience of perceiving discrimination can lead to a multitude of stress-related emotional, physical, and behavioural changes. Additionally, regardless of your personal experiences, it can be stressful just being a member of a group that is often discriminated against.

Beyond contributing to distress and well-being, self-reported discrimination has also been linked to DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) psychological disorders such as psychosis, paranoia, and eating disorders. Those who face discrimination frequently - at least a few times per month - are around 25% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder and twice as likely to develop severe psychological distress than people who don’t experience discrimination.

Mental health is so important because it includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Roma face widespread antigypsyism, both at the individual level and by being part of a marginalised community. As a result, Romani people are at increased risk of dealing with mental health problems.

Resilience, resistance, and well-being

One example that best illustrates the harmful consequences of bullying and discrimination is the research paper One in One Hundred: Drivers of Success and Resilience among College-Educated Romani Adolescents in Serbia, by Harvard FXB. Of the Romani college-students interviewed for the research, 58% said they had experienced discrimination in either primary or secondary school. This included experiencing peer bullying, rejection, and isolation. They also talked about not fully understanding, from a very young age, why teachers treated them worse than their non-Romani peers.

Discrimination is such a common feature of Romani life that many young Roma accept it as “normal.” In the article ‘Reclaiming Adolescence’, which investigated the educational hardships experienced by Romani youth in Belgrade, the qualitative data showed a tendency for young Roma to normalise and internalise discrimination in their lives, often as a resilient coping strategy. In interviews for that study, some parents and institutional representatives added that some Romani adolescents miss discriminatory signals and implicit biases when they encounter them because they don’t adequately grasp the notion of discrimination or properly understand the behaviour associated with it.

This is not just a Serbian issue; discrimination of Romani children in education persists across Europe. In Slovakia, 65% of 6 -15 year-old Romani pupils attend schools where all or most pupils are Roma, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights' Roma Survey. This is a 5 percentage-point increase compared to 2016 and makes Slovakia the EU Member State with the highest share of Romani segregation in education. 

More than 15 years after the European Court of Human Rights judgment D.H. and Others v the Czech Republic, which ruled segregation of Romani children to be unlawful, the European Parliament condemned the persistence of such segregation in special schools and within mainstream systems. The Parliament argued against the continued use of standardised psychological testing and called on Member States of the European Union to eradicate practices of continued segregation of Romani children.

Discrimination is not just in the playground

In Serbia, despite legal and constitutional safeguards and prohibitions against forms of discrimination and rights violations, the Regular Annual Report of the Commissioner for Protection of Equality for 2022 confirmed that Roma continue to face many forms of discrimination. Among the complaints about discrimination on the grounds of national/ethnic affiliation, the largest number related to discrimination against the Romani national minority (87.7%), although there were instances of multiple complaints relating to the same event. This large number of complaints is clearly indicative of the prevailing attitudes, social distance, stereotypes, and prejudice faced by Romani men and women. Roma face discrimination in their daily interactions with neighbours and colleagues at work and while performing routine social activities; they are often insulted or belittled without cause, and they face aggression or hate speech.

The Commissioner conducted a number of procedures during the year, which involved cases where stereotypes about Roma where openly promoted on certain TV programmes, or in newspapers, and noted in her opinions that such speech in the public sphere had numerous consequences and created a hostile and offensive environment in daily life for members of the Romani community. Complaints also often concerned racist graffiti in public places, which was removed in most cases after the complaints had been filed with the Commissioner.

Filing a complaint is often the only course of action for Roma wishing to do something about their experiences of discrimination, however even the complaints process can be a stressful and emotional experience. Indeed, the Regular Annual Report found that the most stressful aspects were the prolonged duration and unpredictability of the process. 

Dealing with discrimination

Finding healthy ways to deal with discrimination is important, for physical health and mental well-being. While a key course of action is to report discrimination to the authorities, it is also important to seek support systems on a personal level. One problem with discrimination is that people can internalise others’ negative beliefs, even when they’re false, leading to victims starting to believe they’re not good enough. Ensuring you have strong support systems can help to maintain strong mental heath in the face of discrimination. Support doesn’t just have to come from people in your family or circle of friends; you can get involved with like-minded groups and organisations, whether locally or online. It can help to know there are other people who have had similar experiences to yours, and connecting with those people might help you figure out how to address situations and respond to experiences of discrimination in ways you haven’t thought of. Of course, if necessary, you can also seek professional help. Discrimination is difficult to deal with and is often associated with symptoms of depression. Psychologists are experts in helping people manage symptoms of stress and depression and can help you find healthy ways to cope. 

This article was written by one of our Roma Rights Defenders as part of the ‘ERRC Newsroom’ project, bringing together Romani and non-Romani activists with an interest in journalism and human rights. The project provides volunteers with mentoring, copy-editing, training, and opportunities to pitch articles on Roma Rights issues for publication on ERRC News. If you are interested in pitching an article to ERRC News, or joining this volunteer project, send an email to


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