Race and faith-based discrimination

Exposure to discrimination is an important risk factor which potentially undermines children’s mental health. It can affect children’s images of themselves, their self-belief and self-worth, their identity and their feeling of belonging. It can also increase the risk of being the target of bullying.

Children can experience discrimination due to their ethnicity and/or their perceived or real faith, beliefs, culture or language.

These experiences can increase children’s vulnerability in a number of ways, including:

  • Creating a sense of difference and ‘otherness’ affecting feelings of belonging, which we know can protect children’s wellbeing.
  • Children absorbing the negative and devaluing images of some people/groups, based on their race, faith or beliefs. This, in turn, undermines children’s self-esteem, identity, aspirations and self-worth.
  • Limiting access to opportunities.
  • Exposure to race-based bullying. There is strong evidence that bullying is highly detrimental to children’s mental health.

Protective factors: what schools can do

Children need to learn in a safe, caring and respectful environment which embraces and conveys positive messages about their identity, diversity, and faith. This feeling of belonging is important to their wellbeing and to their academic achievement. Find out more about what makes a positive whole-school environment

  • Start developing tolerance early in all children: use age and developmentally-appropriate PSHE lessons and other cross-curricular activity to help all children build social and emotional skills and learn about diversity and different cultures (including different faiths), developing good relationships, respect, collaboration and empathy.
  • Victims of race, ethnicity, culture or faith-based bullying should be offered support to minimise long-term risks; children who act in a discriminatory or racist manner in school should have their assumptions and attitudes challenged and support offered so that they understand about different races, cultures and faiths.
  • Ensure that effective anti-bullying policies are well-implemented and that school staff are not passive bystanders to discrimination.
  • Make sure that classroom and school posters, pictures, books, music, toys, dolls and other materials are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, family situations, disabilities, etc.
  • Acknowledge key festivals across different faiths, particularly those represented by the school population.
  • Normalise conversations about wellbeing and seeking help.
  • Encourage pupils to speak out against unfairness, race, ethnicity, culture or faith-based discrimination.
  • Training and self-reflection: discrimination can be unconscious and difficult to spot. It requires all school staff to be self-aware and think about their own day-to-day responses, strategies and practices. There also needs to be a culture of reflection and of challenging behaviour, language and attitudes. Training is important along with good links with neighbourhood organisations to support children from different communities.
  • Set high expectations for all children and help them feel good about their race, ethnicity, culture and faith.
  • Be aware that children from some ethnic groups may experience negative stereotypes which may undermine their wellbeing and sense of self.
  • Build authentic and trusting relationships with children.
  • Engage families and communities in ways that are meaningful and culturally competent. Children learn about empathy and respect in the home environment.
  • Help children get extra support, if needed (e.g. through pastoral care/ school counselling, school nurses or through referral to community-based support). 
  • Be alert early on for the different ways in which children might be communicating that something is wrong; think creatively about adjustments that might help them thrive and achieve.

I was getting into trouble, I was on the verge of getting kicked out of school and a teacher came up to me and said you need to try doing something different. So I got involved in drama… and I loved it maybe she [that teacher] thought that I liked acting up in front of everyone and she saw something that I didn’t’. She made a difference…

Young university student, Centre for Mental Health, 2017

It breaks down trust, when people like teachers, like society, the media it’s everywhere, tell you you’re no good.  And we’ve got to work on building that trust cos young black men believe it… they believe it.  That’s what they think they are – no good… and it starts early

Centre for Mental Health, 2017

Mental health and the impact of stigma

We know many people can feel shame and stigma as a result of mental illness. This can be more common, intense and severe for members of some BAME communities – leading to families being fearful about opening up discussions and sometimes hiding early signs and symptoms.

There may also be:

  • Fears about being open about poor mental health and getting labelled.
  • Fears of family alienation because of stigma.
  • A lack of trust in statutory agencies, including mental health services.

Schools need to be aware of these issues when opening up a conversation with some families and children on mental health and wellbeing. You may need to use less ‘medical’ language and help parents and carers think through the process of seeing mental health as a spectrum and how risks and protective factors play a role in children’s mental health.


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