sad African American woman
Depression
Mental & Emotional Health

Discrimination Increases Risk for Mental-Health Problems

People who are the victims of chronic discrimination, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, can develop risk factors for mental disorders, experts say.

“We now have decades of research showing that when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression,” said Vickie Mays, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor in the department of health policy and management. Mays has done research in collaboration with Susan Cochran, a professor in the department of epidemiology at UCLA, that has helped document those links.

And when the mental health of one person is affected, it can produce a domino effect extending beyond that individual. “We know that when people have a psychiatric disorder, it’s not good for any of us,” Mays says. “For example, it can affect parenting — a depressed mom might not be able to interact with her child in a way that best promotes that child’s development, leaving the child more vulnerable to certain behavioral disorders. In that sense, we all suffer from the effects of discrimination.”

Gilbert Gee, professor in the Fielding school’s Department of Community Health Sciences, did a 2007 study to determine the extent to which Asian Americans who reported being the victims of discrimination were more vulnerable to developing clinically diagnosable mental disorders. “Much of the research has focused on symptoms of sadness and anxiety resulting from the mistreatment, and that’s very important, but we wanted to look at clinical outcomes,” Gee says.

Even after taking into account other potential causes of stress, Gee found a clear relationship between discrimination and increased risk of mental disorders.

Since that study, other researchers have reported similar results in African-American and Latino populations, as well as in other populations around the world, Gee says. He also found in a 2014 study of Latinas/os, that discrimination was significantly associated with increased risk of alcohol abuse among women and increased risk of drug abuse among men. In 2015, Gee and colleagues performed an analysis drawing from approximately 300 studies conducted around the world over the last three decades. This meta-analysis concluded that self-reported racial discrimination is consistently related to poor mental health.

Discrimination is incredibly complex and experienced in so many different ways that it can be difficult to pinpoint the process by which it undermines mental health, researchers say. “There are so many different routes, some of them direct and some of them indirect,” Gee explains. He points out that while a hate crime occurring in a community is certain to affect the mental health status of the victim and the victim’s family, it can also have a spillover effect for acquaintances and non-acquintances in the community.

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