She spends all her time in the library, so she must not have any friends. She acts weirdly, so she must have a personality disorder. She’s black so she must be doing something illegal. Judgements stemming from fear, stigmatization and a lack of education have detrimental effects on the mental health and wellbeing of teens, causing higher anxiety, lower self-esteem, difficulty focusing and reduced likelihood of seeking help.

But how can one be calm after being racially profiled? How can one love themselves after being told by friends that nobody else does? How can one seek help if nobody is willing to give it? When a person is told something enough times, they start to believe it. They start thinking that they’re not worth anything, that maybe the world would be better off without them in it. Then comes the over-eating, the under-sleeping, the lack of being able to focus. Gradually, they cut themselves off from loved ones and have difficulties maintaining relationships. With no support system, they’re isolated. They wouldn’t dare ask for help because they don’t deserve it. And grades? Forget that. Students who suffer from being stereotyped are put at a significant disadvantage, from the lasting mental effects to the way they are perceived by others. In fact, a 2016 article by author Kirstin Weir highlights that “black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled, less likely to be placed in gifted programs and subject to lower expectations from their teachers.” The reality that students of color are held to lower standards than white students goes to show just how much deep-rooted prejudice and stereotypes can affect a student’s chance at academic success.

Eliminating stereotypes and prejudice in schools is not easy. According to a 2020 article by psychotherapist Amy Morin from Very Well Mind, “most stereotypes are formed as children.” When people are young, they don’t realize the effects of having different colored skin in our society. Children adopt their behaviors, habits and beliefs from their families, friends and social media, and when those are established, they will last into adulthood. “It’s difficult to change your way of thinking. This is because you’ll unintentionally look for evidence that affirms your beliefs and discounts any evidence to the contrary,” says Morin. People see what they expect to see, and unless they are proven otherwise, or make a real effort to better themselves, that’s not likely to change.

But people can change. Things can be done by everyone, to help minimize harmful stereotypes and prejudice, even if they’ve never been victims or aggressors of discriminatory behavior. For victims of such behavior, it may be helpful for them to realize that the biased actions of others is not their fault. The victims have no say in how they are perceived and shouldn’t hate themselves for it; stereotypes and prejudice are cultivated over many years by society. To help avoid hurting others, everyone should constantly ask themselves one simple question: why? Asking why they believe certain things and act a certain way about particular groups of people can help them to think more deeply about how they originated. Is the action or thought coming from a genuine concern for themselves and others, or appearances, bigotry and bias? As theologist Miroslav Volf says, “prejudice is a form of untruthfulness, and untruthfulness is an insidious form of injustice.” It is only when asking why, that people realize not all Muslims are terrorists, not all businessmen are uptight and not all gay people act like the opposite gender. People are more than first impressions, and to treat them as such would be the start of polarization.

Stereotypes and prejudice have lasting effects on the mental health of young people, causing them to be unmotivated, lash out at friends and have low views of themselves. It’s up to everyone to listen and reach out. To understand, so that there can be a world where a girl acts weirdly, spends time in the library and has dark skin, but is still treated like the human being she is.

All images taken from Canva.