Study: The Stress Of Discrimination Is Harming Your Mental Health

January 19, 2016  |  

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

When faced with discrimination, how do you react to it? Well, according to a new study out of UCLA, you may be more affected by it than you think. Facing discrimination, both overt and subtle experiences, can have a negative impact on one’s mental health, and the mental health of those around them. The results were published in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Magazine.

“We now have decades of research showing that when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression,” said Vickie Mays, Public Health professor for UCLA’s Fielding School. She teamed up with Dr. Susan Cochran of the Fielding School’s Department of Epidemiology to record the connection between such mistreatment and mental health.

For instance, in the study, it was found that the effects of discrimination go deeper than one man or woman being affected.

“We know that when people have a psychiatric disorder, it’s not good for any of us,” Mays said. “For example, it can affect parenting — a depressed mom might not be able to interact with her child in a way that best promotes that child’s development, leaving the child more vulnerable to certain behavior disorders. In that sense, we all suffer from the effects of discrimination.”

And not only that, but facing discrimination hinders our decision-making process, or in other words, how our brain processes certain data. For instance, if you feel that you will encounter discrimination again, you may try to avoid exposing yourself to things and opportunities that you worry will leave you disappointed again.

“When we’ve had these experiences and anticipate that other incidents might lead us to be discriminated against, it can interfere with our ability to cognitively function at our best,” Mays said.

Another faculty member whose past work contributed to the study was Gilbert Gee. He analyzed 300 studies from around the world, conducted over the last 30 years, including a study led by one of his postdoctoral fellows, which scanned the brain functions of South Asian women as they discussed experiences of being treated in an inferior manner. The parts of their brain that regulate emotions and stress responded the most. Through such studies, Gee found that poor mental health is consistently associated with the mistreatment individuals report, both in interpersonal insults and systemically.

“If you don’t get a job and you’re left to wonder whether it had to do with your race or gender, that can have an impact on your mental health,” Gee said. “We know that when people are worried about things, it affects their mood.”

Mays stated that prevention efforts are important for victims of discrimination. “We screen for mental health disorders when we are putting together an individual’s electronic health record, but maybe we also need to ask about their experiences with discrimination, which would identify people at risk who could benefit from prevention efforts.”

But Mays stated that prevention efforts are also necessary for those who are the individuals out here discriminating in the first place.

“We need to target prevention strategies at the perpetrators of racism, just like we’ve targeted people who are developing bullying behaviors, starting in the school system,” Mays said. ” We can do more to learn about the processes that lead people to treat others this way, and how to disrupt those through early education.”


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