Around one in ten ethnic minorities in England has reported experiencing ethnic and racial harassment in a public place and almost double this number has reported feeling unsafe or avoiding public places, both of which are associated with poorer mental health, according to new research.

The findings were part of an ESRC-funded study of the prevalence of ethnic and racial harassment and its impact on health during the period 2009 to 2014, conducted by researchers at the University of Essex using data from the large-scale household panel survey Understanding Society. The researchers also looked at measures that can protect ethnic minorities against the mental health costs associated with ethnic and racial harassment.

Lead researcher Dr Alita Nandi, of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, says: “Given the series of increasingly stronger anti-discrimination and anti-racism laws that have been passed in this country since the late 1960s, the finding that around one in ten ethnic minorities reported experiencing ethnic and racial harassment was surprising. 

“What was alarming was that almost twice as many – one in five – ethnic minorities reported avoiding or feeling unsafe in public places due to their ethnicity, religion or national identity. Thus, fear of harassment is even more widespread than the actual incidence rates suggest.”

The study’s other main findings were:

  • Ethnic minorities who are younger, more highly educated and male are more likely to be at risk from ethnic and racial harassment than other groups, as they are more likely to be in public places and have greater confidence to report it.
  • In most ethnic groups, twice as many people anticipated or feared harassment than actually experienced it. Women were more likely to anticipate or fear it and less likely to report experiencing it.
  • Risk of harassment is positively associated with certain types of places including areas of high white concentration, areas with low proportion of their own ethnic group and more deprived areas.
  • There is a substantial association of ethnic and racial harassment and fear of ethnic and racial harassment with worse mental health. 
  • There are few protections against mental health issues as a result of harassment, but having a strong ethnic identity and friends of the same ethnic group can cushion the impact for UK born ethnic minorities, while having many close friends and living in areas with higher proportion of co-ethnic members helps for foreign born ethnic minorities.

Dr Nandi explains: “To provide a benchmark, we found that the estimated mental health cost was higher than that associated with unemployment. Given how common and emotionally costly harassment experiences are and, given that there are very few factors that can reduce the mental health impact, these findings highlight the importance and urgency of reducing and eliminating harassment and discriminatory practices and behaviours.”

Gavin Sutherland, a spokesman for the charity Show Racism the Red Card, says: “The findings of the ESRC and University of Essex research illustrate the impact that ethnic and racial harassment has on individuals. This research and recent noticeable spikes in hate crime levels nationally show that for many people, racism is an all too common occurrence in UK society.

“The detrimental effect of this type of abuse to an individual’s mental health underlines the need to ensure education about racism and discrimination is part of policy and strategies to challenge prejudice.”

The researchers hope their findings will increase awareness among the public, policy-makers, healthcare professionals and law enforcement agencies about how common such harassment experiences are. They also hope that investigations into causes of mental health issues among ethnic minority individuals will consider harassment and discrimination to be one of the possible causes.