Despite the fact that an education acts as a protective factor against depression for most social groups, it is conversely a risk factor for depression among Black men, according to a recent University of Michigan study.
Soon to be published in Frontiers in Public Health, the findings suggest certain intersections of race and gender can lead to negative mental and physical health conditions with relation to education.
Shervin Assari, University professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study, said this research — along with other studies he has done regarding the interactions between race, gender and depressive symptoms — has important social and public policy implications.
Assari used data from the Americans’ Changing Lives study from the University’s Institute for Social Research. The study followed a nationally representative sample of more than 3,600 men and women for 25 years from 1986 to 2011. The longitudinal study collected data regarding a range of social, psychological and behavioral factors, according to its website.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.6 percent of Blacks experience moderate depressive symptoms as compared to 4.3 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
For the most recent study, Assari focused on two outcomes — depressive symptoms and the number of current medical conditions — to survey how education can protect against depressive symptoms in white men, white women, Black women and Black men.
Assari said there are multiple things that can be considered protective factors — aspects of life which promote health and well-being — but his research focused solely on education and income.
“These types of resources help the individual avoid risk and minimize the consequence of risks when they happen,” Assari said. “When you have education, education is the risk resource for you not to get the medical conditions that lower-educated or people with lower education would be at higher risk for. These are types of social resources that an individual can use to navigate.”
The study looked at how baseline education — such as the number of years in school or the type of degree or credentials earned — influences behavior. Assari wanted to see how baseline education could predict change in depressive symptoms and chronic medical conditions over 25 years.
According to Assari, for both white men and white women, having a high school diploma is protective against depressive symptoms, yet for Black women, having these credentials neither protects nor increases the risk. For Black men, however, education correlates with an increase in the risk of depression.
“In all groups, (education) is protective with one exception, which is Black men,” Assari said. “If other people have a high school diploma, they are definitely not at higher risk of depressive symptoms over time unless they are Black men.”
However, these findings do not suggest Black men do not know how to use their education, Assari said. On the contrary, for Black men, each year of education increasingly protects the population from engaging in risky behavioral patterns. Rather, it is the persistent societal segregation and social barriers present an increase in the risk of depressive symptoms for Black men, according to Assari. He explained that negative social barriers lead to a restricted access to jobs and an unequal pay, both of which lead to the potential development of depressive symptoms.
“There is this intersection of gender and race which works as a huge barrier in this country, not only just race,” Assari said.
Assari said these findings raise the question as to whether this research is something new, or whether society has known and allowed this to occur.
“We knew discrimination and racism exist, and we knew that education doesn’t benefit to the same level to the Blacks but, to my understanding, that we never knew— that it may increase risk of depression,” Assari said.
Ultimately, Assari hopes public policy can be altered to eliminate social barriers. In the mean time, he hopes that clinicians, while treating Black males, keep in mind the correlation between depressive symptoms and an elevation in education level.