Study links racism with signs of depression in Black teens

Surveyed students faced racist actions an average of five times a day

lonely boy

Racial discrimination takes many forms, some big, others small. But they all matter. Teens in a study who experienced racism showed worse symptoms of depression after just two weeks.

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Sadly, racial discrimination happens every day. Indeed, for some U.S. kids, it’s a five-times-a-day thing. That’s the finding of a small survey of Black teens. Moreover, these kids showed worse signs of depression after two weeks of such experiences. Mental-health researchers worry that over time, such ongoing racism will cause more and more emotional harm.

Devin English works at the Rutgers University School of Public Health in Newark, N.J. As a psychologist, he studies human behavior, the mind and emotional health. He and other researchers wondered how common different types of discrimination are for Black teens. They also wanted to see whether racism affects teens’ mental health. To find out, he and some colleagues surveyed 101 Black students, aged 13 to 17, in Washington, D.C.

Team members first asked teens 20 questions about signs of possible depression. For instance, did these kids have trouble sleeping? Did they have trouble keeping their mind on what they were doing? Had they lost interest in some of their usual activities?

Then the team asked the teens to complete daily surveys for two weeks. The 15 survey questions changed each day. In all, the surveys asked about more than 60 types of experiences that might indicate racism. These ranged from physical assaults and bullying to insults and other nasty behaviors.

But the incidents didn’t have to have been aimed at the teens directly. Racism experienced by a family member, neighbor or friend can have broad impacts. This type of secondhand — or vicarious — experience can hurt kids as well. Teens also can face racism online.

Then there are smaller — micro — aggressions. These can be seemingly small slights or insults. A store clerk might first help customers who came in after a Black teen. Or a teacher might not bother to say a student’s name correctly. The person behind the microaggression might not mean to give harm. But the student can still sense the person’s prejudice and feel hurt.

If a Black teen feels upset by racism, for example, a White person might say, “Get over it.” That downplays the teen’s experience and suggests it shouldn’t hurt — even if it truly does. Or, someone might ask a person of color to speak for all members of his or her race or ethnic group. That wrongly suggests that everyone in that group is alike.

Other microaggressions take the form of teasing. Some teens might say something they claim is being done in fun — but isn’t fun at all to the targeted student. Teasing and other microaggressions make us “feel that we’re not normal and we don’t belong,” explains English at Rutgers.

Five per day

Teens in the new study completed 1,139 daily surveys and reported 5,606 experiences of discrimination. That comes to an average of almost five events a day. The three most common forms were individual and vicarious online incidents and race-related offline teasing.

Researchers asked again about signs of depression at the end of the study. After the two weeks, symptoms had worsened in students who experienced more frequent real-world (offline) discrimination. Targeted incidents of racism online also made symptoms worse. 

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Teens surveyed in a recent study reported frequent experiences of racism when they went online.MachineHeadz/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The worsening of symptoms was small but worrisome. “This is over a two-week period for young people,” English says. “And if discrimination is causing someone to feel worse about themselves over a short period of time — and that’s happening over and over and over again — you would expect that it’s leading to things like more serious mental-health symptoms.”

Those impacts will add up over time, English expects. It’s like a backpack that keeps getting more books, keys, pencils and other things tossed into it. “Over time, if we don’t have the resources and support to help unload some of those things from the backpack, it becomes really, really heavy,” he says. And eventually, he says, it “starts to weigh us down.”

His team’s new study appears in the January-February 2020 issue of Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Future studies will test if similar results show up in other cities. “We know that Black communities are extremely diverse,” English notes.

“I wish I could say the findings were a complete surprise to me. They weren’t,” says Roxanne Donovan. She’s a psychology professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. In a study seven years ago, her group surveyed Black women college students. Nearly all of them — 96 percent — said they faced racial microaggressions at least a few times per year.

“What did surprise me was the high number” of events that teens in the new study had to deal with, Donovan says. She applauds this study’s method of asking teens for daily reports. She also commends the focus on multiple types of discrimination.

What can be done?

Sadly, too many young people are treated badly because of their race. But, English stresses, “it’s not about a problem with them.” Rather, he says, society is the problem.

Teens can do something about racism. If a situation isn’t dangerous, speak up and say how you feel. In any case, talk with parents and other trusted people at school or in your community. Teens and families also can encourage schools to take a no-tolerance stance against racist actions, including teasing and bullying.

Teens who aren’t people of color can and should speak out against racism, Donovan and others say. These teens also can try to recognize and curb their own biases. Think about what racial experiences have shaped how you see yourself and others, English suggests. Also think about how you may have enjoyed some privileges based on your race. “It’s really important that we explore that,” he says, and that “we are honest with ourselves.”

If someone talks with you about an experience of racial discrimination, “they’re putting a lot of confidence in you, and they’re trusting you,” English adds. “It’s really important to listen to that.” Meanwhile, society still has a long way to go to fight racism.

“Five discrimination experiences daily is five too many,” Donovan says. “These teens deserve better from our society.”

Kathiann Kowalski reports on all sorts of cutting-edge science. Previously, she practiced law with a large firm. Kathi enjoys hiking, sewing and reading. She also enjoys travel, especially family adventures and beach trips.

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