The University Record, March 12, 2001

Discrimination linked to depression, psychological distress in Blacks

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Nearly one-third of U.S. high school seniors often worry about race relations, and about 20 percent think that relationships between Blacks and whites have been getting worse, according to a U-M study.

Findings from the study, conducted at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), are reported in the current issue of the journal Social Indicators Research.

“Most young adults are satisfied with their lives and pretty happy,” says sociologist Tony N. Brown, first author of the study report and a research investigator with the ISR Program for Research on Black Americans.

“But pessimism about race relations is linked to lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction,” Brown said. “And given the persistence of racial inequality, pessimism about Black-white relations that begins in young adulthood and continues over the life course may become an ongoing source of everyday stress.”

For the study, Brown analyzed data on a nationally representative sample of 4,500 Black, white and Hispanic students, taken from the 1996 and 1997 waves of the ISR Monitoring the Future Study.

Almost 50 percent of Black high school seniors reported that they often worried about race relations, compared with almost 30 percent of Hispanic and white seniors. But white students were more pessimistic about race relations than either Blacks or Hispanics, with almost 23 percent of whites, 19 percent of Blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics saying that relations between whites and Blacks have been getting at least a little worse.

The study does not clarify whether pessimism about race relations leads to lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction, or whether young people who are generally unhappy may be more pessimistic about race relations.

But in another study, “Being Black and Feeling Blue: The Mental Health Consequences of Racial Discrimination,” published in a recent issue of the journal Race & Society, Brown and colleagues document the mental health consequences of racial discrimination.

Analyzing data from ISR’s longitudinal National Survey of Black Americans, the researchers compared the responses of 779 men and women interviewed at two different times. The researchers found that the experience of racial discrimination was linked to later psychological distress and depression among Blacks but that initial distress and depression were not linked to later reports of racial discrimination.

Respondents were asked whether they or their family members had been treated badly because of their race in the past month. Less than 10 percent said that they had. The researchers assessed psychological distress by asking how much of the time during the past month respondents had felt under strain, stress or pressure; in low spirits; moody; downhearted or blue; depressed; tense or high-strung; nervous, restless or upset; anxious or worried; or unable to relax. A diagnostic interview was used to determine the presence, severity and duration of symptoms of depression.

“Some researchers have suggested that subjective reports of racial discrimination might be a consequence of poor mental health,” Brown notes. “But our analysis shows that the experience of racial discrimination is linked to the onset of psychological distress instead.”

Mental health and distress are caused by a wide range of factors, Brown notes. “We do not mean to imply that racial discrimination is the ‘ultimate’ predictor of mental health problems among Black Americans,” he says. “But this study clearly shows that there is a connection.”

Funding for “Being Black and Feeling Blue” was provided by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging. Funding for the Monitoring the Future Study is provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.