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Civil Rights, Culture, Discrimination, Gender, Health Care, Health Disparities, Inequality, Mental Health, Mental Health Care, Mental Illness, Politics, Public Health, Public Policy, Racial Discrimination, Racial Disparities, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized, Women's Health

STUDY: Discrimination Takes Its Toll On Black Women’s Health


Racial discrimination is a major threat to African American women’s mental health. It undermines their view of themselves as masters of their own life circumstances and makes them less psychologically resilient and more prone to depression. These findings by Dr. Verna Keith, from Florida State University in the US and her colleagues, are published online in Springer’s journal Sex Roles.

Dr. Keith and her team used data from the National Survey of American Life: Coping with Stress in the 21st Century to analyze the relationship between perceived discrimination and depressive symptoms among 2,300 African American adult women. They also looked at whether personal mastery — the belief that one can control important circumstances affecting one’s life — explained the intensity of the women’s psychological response to discrimination, and whether experiences of discrimination differed by skin complexion. The effects of age and education were also assessed.

African American women who viewed themselves as being able to exercise some control over their life circumstances reported fewer depressive symptoms. Women who were subjected to higher levels of unfair treatment experienced more depressive symptoms, in part, because day-to-day discrimination undermined their overall confidence in their ability to manage life challenges, leaving them feeling powerless and depressed.

The authors’ analyses also showed that skin tone was not linked to level of discrimination, mastery or depressive symptoms. Older African American women reported slightly fewer experiences of discrimination, lower levels of mastery and fewer depressive symptoms than younger women. The more educated women felt more in control of their lives and experienced fewer depressive symptoms.

The authors conclude: “Our results show that perceptions of unfair treatment, like other chronic stressors, are psychologically burdensome to African American women. Our findings confirm that mastery mediates the relationship between discrimination and depressive symptoms and plays a major role in explaining why some African American women are more vulnerable to discrimination than others. Many women suffer emotionally because they are unable to view themselves as efficacious and competent actors when treated with suspicion and confronted with dehumanizing interactions.”

Dr. Keith and colleagues’ findings are consistent with other research investigating the impact of racism on psychological and emotional wellbeing. According to a study conducted by Drs. Yin Paradies and Joan Cummingham, stress, lack of control and feeling powerless as a reaction to racism are all significant mediators* of the relationship between racism and mental health.

“This indicates the importance of understanding the aetiology of racism as a determinant of health,” the researchers concluded. “In addition to reinforcing the clear need to reduce the incidence of racism, such an improved understanding may help direct efforts to combat the effects of racism. In particular, this study highlights the importance of reducing consequent stress, enhancing general levels of mastery, and minimising negative social connections in order to ameliorate the negative consequences of racism.”

Similar research has shown that the same relationship between racism and mental health exists among African American men. 

These findings are important, as they suggest that it is possible to reduce the harmful effects of racism through psychosocial interventions. While eliminating racism is the ultimate goal, it is all too clear that this won’t happen overnight. Research shows that techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy and stress inoculation training may be an effective approach for reducing some of the negative mental and physical health consequences of experiencing chronic racial discrimination and prejudice.

*A quick statistical note:  Mediating and moderating variables are examples of third variables. Most research focuses on the relation between two variables—an independent variable X and an outcome variable Y. In this case, X = racism and = mental health. But, in most research involving complex relationships, the link between and is not straightforward. That’s where third variables come into play. Mediator variables account for the relation between the predictor (X) and the outcome (Y). Moderator variables indicate when or under what conditions the relationship between and will hold, and also change the strength of the relationship. According to statisticians Drs. Ruben Barry & Davis Kenny, “Whereas moderator variables specify when certain effects will hold, mediators speak to how or why such effects occur.” In other words, the effects of racism on mental health might be stronger for certain racial groups; this would be an example of a moderating relationship. In the research above, the impact of racism on mental health occurs through the effects of stress, powerlessness, and loss of mastery; this is an example of a mediating relationship.

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