Researcher finds higher depression levels in high-SES Black communities

Sunday, May 13, 2018 - 12:10pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

In an effort to quantify the impact of racism in the United States through statistical analysis, the New York Times Upshot reported last March that Black men, even those raised in wealthy households similar to their white counterparts, tended to see their average salaries diminish at a higher rate than white men as they entered the workforce. Shervin Assari’s lab at the University of Michigan continues to study this lack of equal outcomes between white and Black Americans despite similar resources, with his recent paper finding a higher rate of depression among high-socioeconomic status Black citizens than white people from similar backgrounds.

The paper, which was published in “Brain Sciences” last month, used data from 810 Black children who participated in the National Survey of American Life Adolescent Supplement and tracked the children’s levels of perceived discrimination in relation to the rates of 30-day, 12-month and lifetime major depressive disorder, finding a positive association between discrimination and depression in these higher-SES populations.

Assari, the primary researcher on the paper, has been conducting research with this model of comparing the outcomes of Black and white American with the same resources. This recent paper dives into the health implications of such a relationship. Assari maintained this theory is not limited to this specific study but has been explored and continually confirmed in other papers he has worked on and by outside sources like the Upshot report.

“Across the board, when you look at the effects of economic resources like education, employment, income and you look at the health outcome, life-expectancy, number of years people live, chronic disease, how much they stay healthy or depression, you see a pattern with all white men, particularly boys, being … advantaged compared to Blacks,” Assari said.

When considering variables such as SES, with varying metrics such as income levels, position on the poverty index, and discrimination, Assari’s lab took care to consider the differences between subjective and objective wealth. According to Brianna Preiser, a research technician intermediate in Assari’s lab and the second author on the paper, subjective wealth considers how well off people believe themselves to be while more objective studies look strictly at how high they are above the poverty index. Preiser said the study treats subjective SES with high regard because the opinions and emotions around high-SES populations can have a very large impact on mental health and depression rates.

“Rather than saying ‘Okay, well, if it’s not objective socioeconomic status then it’s not a hard finding,’ we’re able to propose an alternate way of approaching this which is the subjective expectations of high socioeconomic status and other things that come along with high socioeconomic status and different coping mechanisms all play a part in why we’re seeing these findings,” Preiser said.

LSA junior Chase Garrett worked in Assari’s lab for the past year through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, synthesizing data and other previous studies to assist Assari with his publications, including the recent paper. When developing and studying the findings in the paper relating high-SES Black populations to depression rates, Garrett said his past experiences with discrimination and mental health in this country mirrored the results published.

“It wasn’t really shocking to me based off of society today and my experience. Often times, us African American people tend to hold a lot of things in so there’s a whole lot of internal anger and a lot of built up aggression that we just internalize and basically just go out into the world and act like nothing is happening,” Garrett said. “We kind of just let it roll off our shoulders and just try to keep it moving.”

The higher rates of depression among Black youth, according to Assari, could be a response to many societal situations. One situation, Assari proposed, could be wealthy Black families living in predominantly white neighborhoods, which could lead to higher rates of discrimination and depression. He also suggested the distance these Black families have from other Black communities could result in a lack of an emotional support group and mental health resources. However, Assari maintained more research must be done in this field to explore the dominant reasons for why these high depression rates occur in Black high-SES populations.

As for the outcomes that can come from this research, Preiser maintained that increased education about the racial disparity of depression rates and the lack of coherency between resources and outcomes will increase as more studies like Assari’s continue to be published.

“I’m hopeful that it will provide a basis for awareness and education that just giving everyone the same thing, like giving everyone the same level of socioeconomic status for instance, a lot of people will say ‘Okay, well, if we just make everyone equal, then everyone will perform the same and everyone’s outcomes will be the same,’ but we see through these research studies that that’s not the case,” Preiser said.

In addition to increased health care and mental health advocacy for minority populations affected by depression, Assari said society needs to examine how resources are allocated to populations to create an equitable environment for everyone instead of providing populations with the same resources and expecting the same outcome.

Citing instances of police brutality in recent years and the ability to document discrimination through the usage of cell phone cameras and social media, Garrett said the Black population has come a long way since the days of discrimination during the civil rights movement but modern problems require more conversation, especially after a report like Assari’s documenting health disparities as a result of discrimination is published.

“People really need to come together and really try to tackle this issue,” Garrett said. “We know (discrimination is) all around us and I feel as though a lot of people and society today, we try to put a Band-Aid on the issues that are actually going on … I feel like this issue still needs to be talked about and discussed every single day and I feel as though African Americans alone can’t help bring this change. Also, white Americans need to come together with African Americans as well to bring this change, and it needs to be an open discussion on this topic.”