Two University researchers find neighborhood safety to be tied to risk of depression in Black male youth

Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 7:11pm

Two University of Michigan researchers found that a Black male youth’s perception of his neighborhood’s safety is negatively correlated with his risk of developing major depressive disorder.

Psychiatry research investigator Shervin Assari and Cleopatra Howard Caldwell, chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, conducted the research on 1,170 Black youths, ages 13 to 17. The researchers collected data on the subjects’ perceptions of safety within their neighborhoods in relation to their gender, race and risk of developing MDD.

According to prior research on the subject, MDD is less common but more severe in the Black population. Because of this, Assari said further research on the topic of the correlation between MDD and other societal factors is important. 

“Although MDD may be less common among Blacks, depression tends to be more chronic, severe, and disabling in Blacks,” Assari's study said. “As a result, regardless of presence of clinical MDD, Blacks have more severe depressive symptoms than Whites.” 

Assari said they wanted see whether Black women were as suceptible.

“We wanted to know whether perception of unsafe neighborhood would be similarly bad for all groups of Blacks based on ethnicity and gender,” Assari said. “There is a literature which says women are more vulnerable to their environment. We did not find support for this theory.”

Instead, these researchers found the opposite to be true. In a previous study, Assari found stress to be a stronger risk factor for depression in men.

“The idea is that men are more vulnerable to the effect of environmental stress, possibly because they try to look tough,” Assari said. “So they do not seek help when needed.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, this research could be troubling because men are less likely to seek help for issues relating to mental health, and because racial minorities are less likely to have access to mental health care.

“Nearly 9% of men (8.5%) had daily feelings of anxiety or depression,” according to the CDC. “Less than one-half of them (41.0%) took medication for these feelings or had recently talked to a mental health professional … Compared with white Americans, persons of other races in the United States are less likely to have access to and receive needed mental health care.”

According to Assari, the steps involved in solving this issue will not solely be discovered through research. Instead, societal changes must take place in order for the mental health of these adolescents to be improved.

“The intervention should be a multi-level one,” Assari said. “While we should help the individual to better cope with the stress, we should help families to support their youth, and we should also design and implement new public policies that operate in a higher level. Less investments on majority-Black neighborhoods means more depression and health problems among resident of those communities.”

Raven Odom, a graduate student in the School of Public Health currently serving as a graduate research assistant to Caldwell, realizes the importance of the research as it pertains to her own life.
 
"The findings in Dr. Assari’s paper make me think of my younger twin brothers, both of whom are black males. As young black men are often socialized to believe that showing emotion and asking for help is a sign of weakness many of them may be suffering in silence," Odom wrote in an email interview. "The findings also compel me to consider my role as a sister, Black woman, and future public health professional in dismantling the stigma around mental health while also understanding cultural norms."
 
Odom looks forward to continuing working in this field of study by trying to understand the mental health of Black youth.

"The study relates to the work I aspire to do by demonstrating the need to approach mental health care with cultural context in mind," Odom wrote. "Through culturally-specific interventions and programs I want to normalize mental health care among Black youth, while also equipping them with the tools to begin addressing structural issues within their communities."

Assari hopes he can continue this research to determine how to begin solving the mental health issues facing high-risk neighborhoods.

“We only know that the groups differ, but we don't really know that why these group differences exist, and what are effective ways to undo these effects that disproportionately influence a subgroup,” Assari said. “To be more specific, we do not know which policy or which higher level structural intervention would have the highest effect in the mental health of African-American males.”