Our VoiceHealth & Environment

New Study Finds Link Between Racism and Mental Health Problems


Stephen Piggott • May 14, 2009

A recently published study in the May edition of the American Journal of Public Health, has found that children who are the victims of racism are more likely to develop mental health problems as adults. The study examined over 5000 5th graders from Birmingham, Alabama, Los Angeles, California, and Houston, Texas. The study found that 5th graders who are racially abused are highly likely to develop symptoms of depression.

The study does not provide a direct link between racism and emotional problems because the study did not follow the 5th graders over time, but the study’s co-authors are adamant that the link is no coincidence. Tumani Coker, a UCLA pediatrician and RAND Corp researcher, stated that this was the first study of its kind to ever be conducted. Her co-author, Mark Schuster, a Harvard pediatrician stated, “It’s possible that prejudice harms children’s mental health, but it is also possible that troubled kids prompt more discriminatory remarks from peers or that children with emotional problems perceive more bias.”

Mr. Schuster offers many examples that increase the likelihood of the link. Hispanic children who report racism are three times more likely to have symptoms of depression than other children. African American children are more than twice as likely,and children categorized as “other minorities” are almost four times as likely to have symptoms of depression. The study also found that children who are racially abused are more likely to have symptoms of ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. According to the study, twenty percent of African American children, fifteen percent of Hispanic children, sixteen percent of “other minority” children, and seven percent of white children reported that they have been racially abused.

Grade school is meant to be carefree, with little homework or stresses, but the study found that 80% of the racial abuse occurred at school. 5th grade was the year that I moved to the United States from Ireland and though it was difficult at first, everyone accepted me and made me feel welcome. If I had been racially abused in 5th grade it would have had a very negative impact not only on my education but my health. Just the thought of going to a place where you know that you are going to be racially abused is enough to bring about symptoms of depression. Because 80% of the racial abuse is happening in schools, the school districts must step up and attempt to tackle the problem. Schools in metropolitan areas are more diverse and therefore more likely to have problems with racism. If teachers promote equality at this young age, then it will benefit the children greatly in later life.

Nobody in this world should have to deal with racism, especially children. This study’s conclusions are very serious and must not be taken lightly. The study looked at just over 5000 children, that is only a tiny portion of the total number of 5th graders in the United States. Still, the numbers are staggering and are hard to ignore. I can only hope that this is the first of many studies that look at the negative effects of racist abuse because the more studies that are published, the better the chance that something will be done.

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