What Is 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'? Experts Explain Its Mental Health Effects on People of Color


While the case of missing woman Gabby Petito has dominated headlines for weeks, it's also raised plenty of conversation about how the same level of mainstream media coverage isn't granted to people of color.

Petito, who was 22-years-old, was reported missing by her family on September 11 after embarking on a road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie on July 2, who returned to his Florida home without her. Laundrie, who refused to talk to police, has since disappeared from his family's home. Police later found remains in a national park in Wyoming that were identified as Petito, and preliminary findings ruled her cause of death as homicide.

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Updates about the search for Petito and theories about what may have happened have gotten plenty of media coverage, prompting MSNBC anchor Joy Reid to call out racial inequities in media attention regarding missing people. "The way this story captivated the nation has many wondering why not the same media attention when people of color go missing? Well, the answer actually has a name: Missing White Woman Syndrome, the term coined by the late and great Gwen Ifill to describe the media and public fascination with missing white women like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway while ignoring cases involving people of color," she said.

Many people have since spoken about missing white woman syndrome on social media and demanded justice for missing people of color, mostly young girls and women.

Petito's case has turned a spotlight on the case of geologist Daniel Robinson who went missing in late June after he left a job site in Buckeye, Arizona. His father, David Robinson has organized search parties, set up a GoFundMe, and hired a private investigator after he was frustrated with how law enforcement officials reacted to his son's case. Though Robinson, who is Black, went missing in June, his case is just now receiving national attention.

At least 710 indigenous people, mostly girls, went missing in Wyoming from 2011 to 2020 in Wyoming, where Petito's body was found, according to a report from the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force—and none of those received national media attention. Research has also found that Black children, on average, are missing longer and are more likely to remain missing than non-Black children in the US, and that media coverage tends to focus mainly on missing white people.

Witnessing this and being aware of this inequity "contributes to the psychological impact of being devalued," Jamil Stamschror-Lott, LICSW, a social worker and co-founder of Creative Kuponya, tells Health. "This contributes to racialized imposter syndrome, battle fatigue, and many other different emotional and psychological symptoms," he says. "BIPOC folks, in particular, are being indirectly socialized to believe that their community at large does not support their humanity."

Monifa Seawell, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees. "When a white woman's disappearance is heavily covered by the media but far less attention is given to people of color, it can deepen feelings of invisibility," she tells Health. "The media has a very clear pattern of elevating the importance of white folks and the attention, energy, and effort put into covering issues that affect them, while downplaying, minimizing, or outright ignoring the very real issues that impact people of color. This dramatic difference in media coverage can cause people of color to feel invisible and forgotten. Understandably, that experience can lead to a range of emotions such as justifiable rage, sadness, feeling forgotten, and a loss of hope in society."

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Stamschror-Lott points out your environment is "often the forgotten element of wellness," and feeling that your environment devalues you can have a negative impact on your mental health. "This adds to the weathering of Black bodies, which leads to 200 Black lives dying prematurely every day," he says.

There are organizations that are working to change this: The Black and Missing Foundation and Not Our Native Daughters group are both vocal advocates of working to find BIPOC people who are missing, and a number of news organizations have started reporting more on missing person cases other than Petito, especially Robinson's case.

Still, the inequity remains. "For people who are angry over this or struggling, I would first want them to know that their anger is justifiable and understandable," Dr. Seawell says. "When people of color feel angry about racist mistreatment, our anger itself is frequently pathologized. I want people of color to know that it is normal to feel angry about being rendered invisible by the media."

But Dr. Seawell also recommends that people "find a way to channel their anger," which could mean becoming involved with an activist organization that is working to combat this issue, talk to a trusted friend or family member, and doing your self-care practices. If you feel like you need more support, she suggests "reaching out to a licensed and trained mental health professional who has an anti-racist therapy practice and has experience working with people of color."

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