Ending Racism to Improve Children’s Mental Health

by Anna Kennedy, LOHF Executive Director


I joined 10 colleagues from Lancaster organizations last week to learn how to apply racial justice in our work. For me, this was helpful to explore how racism can discourage children and families’ mental health, and how racial justice can improve it.


YWCA Lancaster and the Lancaster Theological Seminary hosted the racial justice training. The 3-day workshop was a follow-up to one I attended last summer. We asked ourselves hard questions. We developed specific strategies to help our organizations become multicultural communities. Trainers jona olsson and Sandra Ewell from Cultural Bridges to Justice guided us. They challenged me to consider ways LOHF can become a more nurturing, welcoming, and supportive organization to people of color in Lancaster County.

This year, LOHF is working with Tony Hernandez from Reflective Wisdom to help us understand pathways to inclusion in our personal and professional lives. My hope is that we can approach LOHF’s mission with this lens of inclusion and racial justice. So, how does the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion relate to children’s mental health?

Social Determinants of Health

First, the social determinants of health model illustrates how various health-influencing factors are embedded within broader aspects of society. For example, my individual health is also determined by my access to a healthy work environment, healthy food, good housing, and education.

Allostatic Load

In addition, a connection between discrimination and children’s mental health is the concept of allostatic load. Allostatis describes the adaptive process that our bodies go through to reduce stress, especially after repeated or toxic stress, or an acute level of stress (from events such as the sudden death of a loved one or a destructive hurricane). The allostatic load causes repeated wear and tear on the body, and can be caused by all types of discrimination, including racism. I think of it as a cup under a faucet where the faucet is dripping. The drops of water are the stress, the cup is our body; eventually, the cup will overflow.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Finally, racial justice is connected to children’s mental health through Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Ten categories of ACEs can be determined through a 10-question survey. These include physical abuse and neglect, parental incarceration, parental mental illness and/or substance use disorder, and divorce. Childhood experiences are foundational and have a tremendous impact on lifelong physical and behavioral health. Some ACEs have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, and even early death. Although the ACEs questions don’t specifically ask about race or ethnicity, studies since have shown how racial disparities and childhood adversity are linked.

The social determinants of health, allostatic load, and ACEs provide insight to how racial justice and becoming a multicultural organization helps families achieve mental well-being. We can remove barriers to healthcare access and reduce stress by creating a more welcoming and supportive community.

Join Us in Building Racial Justice in Lancaster County

To experience the Racial Justice Institute for yourself or your organization, consider attending the next trainings in Lancaster, held at Lancaster Theological Seminary:

  • June 11-13: Racial Justice Institute – Part 1: Foundational Workshop
  • July 18-20: Racial Justice Institute – Part 2: Applied Skills Workshop
  • December 5-7: Racial Justice Institute – Part 1: Foundational Workshop
  • Early 2019 (TBD): Racial Justice Institute – Part 2: Applied Skills Workshop
  • Summer 2019 (TBD): Train the Trainer Workshop

To learn more, contact Lisa Cameron at the YWCA Lancaster or visit: https://ywcalancaster.org/programs/social-justice/