Researcher finds link between race, socioeconomic status and chronic illnesses

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 8:54pm

Shervin Assari, an research assistant professor from the University Department of Psychiatry and School of Public Health, is studying the effects race has on certain aspects of mental and physical health.

Shervin Assari, an research assistant professor from the University Department of Psychiatry and School of Public Health, is studying the effects race has on certain aspects of mental and physical health. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Shervin Assari, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan, is studying a wide range of psychological issues from depression to violence and drug use. Recently, Assari has been making strides in studying the effects race has on certain aspects of mental and physical health.

Assari began to consider race as a factor in his research when he came from Iran to the United States directly to the University of Michigan. One of the things that struck him both about the country and the University was the importance of race.

“I am coming from a country where class matters, but there is no such thing called race, and ethnicity is also not as important as it is in the U.S.,” Assari said. “After coming to this country, I saw that the most important variable that I could look at in my research is race.”

The specific research Assari has been working on recently is about the effects a Black male’s socioeconomic status has on his physical and mental health. In his research, Assari found while higher socioeconomic status awards certain protections against chronic illnesses, those benefits are much higher for white men than Black men.

“Based on the research outside my own work, social-economic resources are supposed to protect,” Assari said. “The more wealthy one person is, the less likely that person is to be depressed. So now, look at the Black-white differences here. As income goes up, chronic disease goes down for whites, but not that much for Blacks. The gain that people get from being wealthy in terms of being more healthy is much more limited for the non-white group.”

Assari said he was particularly surprised to find the risk of depression actually went up for Black men as they became more wealthy and successful, which seems to not be in line with other research that has associated depression to people who are less successful.

“For Blacks, the more educated, more wealthy Black individual is more likely to be depressed, so that is not only smaller gain, but it is an additional risk for depression,” Assari said. “This is not a pattern that you can find in the general population. This is something specific to the U.S. and specific to Blacks. This is Black men: More education, higher risk of depression.”

These facts are known as “diminished returns,” a subject Brianna J. Preiser, a researcher in Assari’s lab, studies in her independent research on psychological behaviors. Preiser said the reasons behind these diminished returns have to do with factors Black men have to deal with in the workplace and communities because of their race.

“As the Black population turns their resources into tangible outcomes, there’s higher psychological costs for them, because they are also undergoing systematic racism and discrimination as well,” Preiser said. “So that has implications for everything, and stress levels will then impact physical health outcomes as well.”

Assari agreed, and also spoke about failures within the system to combat this type of discrimination and racism.

“Some people may say ‘oh, they cannot use their income to come out of medical sickness, or they cannot use their education,’ but of course that is victim blaming,” Assari said. “Something is wrong with the structure and function of the system, which does not allow motivated highly educated wealthy Black men to live in an environment with social relations which would not increase their depression.”

Assari also mentioned successful Black men may be moving into majority-white neighborhoods and facing increased discrimination, which could contribute to the increased depression.

“In one study, I have found that as education goes up, Black men specifically report more discrimination,” he said. “They do not expected to be discriminated against that much, because they have made it, but they are probably moving to majority white neighborhoods which may be less open to a non-white person.”

LSA sophomore Chase Garrett is a member of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, and works in Assari’s lab to investigate why gender, race, social class and culture alter the effects of risk and protective factors on health outcomes. Garrett said in an email interview he thought researching mental health from different angles was very important.

“It is vital to learn more about mental health from different groups and backgrounds so we can have a better interpretation of what is going on inside of the minds of others and how to resolve internal conflict, especially amongst black men,” Garrett wrote.

Preiser also thought scientists in the field of psychology tend not to focus on factors of privilege and discrimination in their analysis and psychological research, and for this reason found Assari’s research to be incredibly important.

“We’re focusing on all these other factors, but not recognizing that social class, social standing, race, ethnicity, gender, those things are also impacting individuals in how they are treated and how they respond to different life events,” Preiser said. “I think that it is something that is relatively understudied, and that we need to spend more time researching it and trying to understand it better.”