University researchers link discrimination to mental illness, especially in Black males
Racial discrimination during one’s youth can predict long-term negative mental health consequences in Black men, one University of Michigan researcher found. However, these consequences later in life differ between males and females.
Shervin Assari, a research investigator with the School of Public Health, studied data from 679 Black youth from 1994 to 2012, all of whom lived in Flint, referred to as an “economically disadvantaged urban area.” Assari found that perceived racial discrimination throughout that time later influenced psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, but mostly for men.
“Racial discrimination may contribute to mental health problems through several potential mechanisms including: 1) heightened negative psychological stress response, 2) increased physiological stress response, 3) hypervigilance, and 4) increased participation in unhealthy behaviors,” Assari wrote in his new paper.
This information has been confirmed through the National Institutes of Health; according to another study, “In the United States (U.S.), as in other racialized countries in the world, racially stigmatized and disenfranchised populations have worse health than their more advantaged counterparts.”
According to Assari, based on higher rates of discrimination against Black males — including police brutality and mass incarceration — he expected worse effects on mental health later in life for males than in females. The paper also outlined a number of negative stereotypes associated with Black men, such as being considered endangered, aggressive, angry and self-destructive.
Assari also attributed his expectations to differing coping mechanisms between genders; Assari noted in his paper females tend to use an avoidant coping mechanism while males are more confrontational. In a previous study, Assari noted differences in vulnerability and susceptibility to stressors between the genders as well.
“Those who get exposed to more discrimination over time become more depressed and more anxious one decade later when they are young … but particularly if they are male,” Assari said.
Females have more social support, express emotions and hold conversations about their problems, Assari said, while masculinity tends to be a barrier for males wanting to reach out and seek help.
“Women tend to have access to social support and use it better,” Assari said. “Discrimination is worse in the presence of high masculinity.”
Additionally, males and females are sensitive to different types of discrimination; males are more sensitive to fear-based discrimination, while females are more sensitive to being ignored or disregarded in a discriminating manner.
Nonetheless, Black men make up the group least likely to seek mental health care, Assari said, stemming from a consistent social lack of knowledge about this community and a stigma surrounding the current health care system.
Daniel Lee, a postdoctoral student working at the Prevention Research Center in the Public Health School specifically working on the Flint Adolescent Study data used in Assari’s research, wrote in an email interview that because of this data, mental health and services to treat mental illness need to become priorities in communities.
“This may involve dismantling negative attitudes and stigma around mental illness and mental health care,” Lee wrote. “Anti-stigma programs such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill may play a vital role in this process. A study actually found that people of color (especially males) are apprehensive about seeking mental health care due to stigma, but that they still want to seek out help in some form.”
Lee also stressed concern for institutional barriers such as affordability and insurance coverage, as well as the need for mental health care to be culturally tailored.
“Ethnic and racial groups possess unique cultural practices, traditions, and beliefs,” Lee wrote. “It is, therefore, crucial that mental health professionals integrate key cultural elements into their clinical assessment, case conceptualization, and treatment plan.”
In his own research, Lee has found that religious involvement, for example, can have a positive influence in mental health of Black patients, and that having support through a religious community or using relaxation methods with prayer can help with mental health treatment.
Lee noted a need to diversify the current pool of mental health care professionals available to disadvantaged communities.
“Funding to train more psychologists of color may help decrease stigma and encourage people of color to seek mental health treatment,” Lee wrote. “Additionally, psychologists of color can also play a vital role in increasing awareness of mental illness and treatment in underrepresented communities … there is evidence to suggest that minority patients were more likely to perceive their therapist as more "positive" and, in some cases, benefit more from treatment when their therapist is of the same racial/ethnic group.”
Lee said the amount of information published on these issues is limited, calling for further research.
“Although researchers have published studies examining gender differences in coping with respect to general life stressors ... research examining gender differences in coping with discrimination-related stress is limited,” Lee wrote. “To move the field forward in this regard, researchers are encouraged to examine gender-specific coping methods when contending with discrimination experiences.”