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The Link Between Racism and Depression


The Link Between Racism and Depression


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Several studies have shown a link between racial discrimination and depression. The targets of racism not only suffer from episodes of depression as a result of bigotry but from suicide attempts as well. The fact that psychiatric treatment remains taboo in many communities of color and that the healthcare industry is itself perceived to be racist exacerbates the problem. As awareness is raised about the link between racism and depression, however, members of marginalized groups can take action to prevent discrimination from having a deleterious effect on their mental health.

Racism and Depression: A Causal Effect

“Racial Discrimination and the Stress Process,” a 2009 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that a clear link exists between racism and depression. For the study a group of researchers gathered the daily journal entries of 174 African Americans who’d earned doctorate degrees or were pursuing such degrees. Each day, the blacks who took part in the study were asked to record instances of racism, negative life events generally and signs of anxiety and depression, according to the Pacific-Standard magazine. Study participants reported incidences of racial discrimination during 26 percent of the total study days, such as being ignored, denied service or overlooked. Researchers found that when participants endured episodes of perceived racism “they reported higher levels of negative affect, anxiety and depression.”

The 2009 study is far from the only study to establish a link between racism and depression. Studies conducted in 1993 and 1996 found that when members of ethnic minority groups make up small portions of a population in an area they are more likely to suffer from mental illness. This is true not only in the United States but in the United Kingdom as well. Two British studies released in 2001 found that minorities living in majority-white London neighborhoods were twice as likely to suffer from psychosis as their counterparts in diverse communities. Another British study found that minorities were more likely to attempt suicide if they lived in areas lacking ethnic diversity. These studies were referred to in the Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities in the UK, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2002. The national survey measured the experiences that 5,196 persons of Caribbean, African and Asian origin had with racial discrimination in the past year. Researchers found that study participants who had endured verbal abuse were three times more likely to suffer from depression or psychosis. Meanwhile, participants who’d endured a racist attack were almost three times as likely to suffer from depression and five times more likely to suffer from psychosis. Individuals who reported having racist employers were 1.6 times more likely to suffer from a psychosis.

High Suicide Rates Among Asian-American Women

Asian-American women are particularly prone to depression and suicide. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has listed depression as the second leading cause of death for Asian-American and Pacific Islander women between the ages of 15 and 24, PBS reported. What’s more Asian-American women have long had the highest suicide rate of other women that age. Asian-American women age 65 and older also have the highest suicide rates for elderly women. For immigrants in particular, cultural isolation, language barriers and discrimination add to the problem, mental health experts told the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2013. Moreover Aileen Duldulao, lead author of a study about suicide rates among Asian Americans, has said that Western culture hyper-sexualizes Asian-American women, stereotyping them as “being very demure and passive or being very strict, bossy, sort of the dragon lady.” Such stereotypes lead to stress, Duldulao asserts, because they place limits on Asian-American women. She says society doesn’t expect Asian-American women “to be outspoken. They’re expecting you to be more demure and to be passive. So there’s a lot of stereotypes, I think, that have risen from this historical context that Asian-American women, especially those born here, have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Hispanics and Depression

A 2005 Brigham Young University study of 168 Hispanic immigrants living in the United States for an average of five years found that those Latinos who perceived that they were targets of racism had sleep disturbances, a precursor to depression. “Individuals who have experienced racism could be thinking about what happened the previous day, feeling stressed about their ability to succeed when being judged by something other than merit,” said Dr. Patrick Steffen, lead study author. “Sleep is the pathway through which racism affects depression.” Steffen also conducted a 2003 study that linked perceived episodes of racial discrimination to a chronic rise in blood pressure.

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