Young victims of discrimination are more likely to have mental health issues, says a new study

BY JOYCE BINDA

A new study published Monday in the Pediatrics Journal says that young victims of discrimination are more likely to develop mental health issues and behavioral problems. The study, based on data collected over a decade and led by the University of California at Berkeley, examined 1,834 Americans in the age bracket of 18 to 28. The findings show that the greater the exposure to discrimination, the greater the risk of developing mental health issues.

This new study confirms previous ones that had found a correlation between discriminations of all kinds—racial, physical, based on aging, appearances or others—and mental illness or psychological distress and drug use. Unlike previous studies, this one focuses on the transition from childhood to adulthood by following the same individuals over a time period.

Yvonne Lei, a medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the study’s corresponding author, says: “With 75% of all lifetime mental health disorders presenting by age 24, the transition to adulthood is a crucial time to prevent mental and behavioral health problems.” The researcher points out the good timing of the findings in the context of the challenges young people face today in America. Referring to the new mental health problems resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the research adds: “We have the opportunity to rethink and improve mental health services to acknowledge the impact of discrimination, so we can better address it to provide more equitable care delivery.”

Looking at data collected over a ten-year span, from 2007 to 2017, in the University of Michigan’s Transition to Adulthood Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics survey, the researchers found that approximately 93% of those surveyed say they experienced discrimination, citing the following as the most common factors: age (26%), physical appearance (19%), sex (14%) and race (13%).

The findings show that people who were the victim of frequent discrimination—from a few to more times a month—had a higher risk of being diagnosed with mental health. These individuals are twice likely to develop more pronounced psychological distress than the participants who experienced the same discrimination much less often, like a few times per year. In sum, the study says, people who experienced discrimination, whether a few times a month or a few times a year, are 26% more likely to develop a poor mental health than those who did not.

This brings to light the multi-facetted impact of discrimination on mental and behavioral health and people’s overall health. The study’s senior author, Dr. Adam Schickedanz, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine, says: “The associations we found are likely also intertwined with mental health care service disparities—including inequities in care access, provider biases and structural and institutional discrimination in health care—leading to inequities in diagnoses, treatment and outcomes.”

The study is also authored by the following researchers: Vivek Shah, Christopher Biely, Nicholas Jackson, Rebecca Dudovitz, Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, Emily Hotez and Dr. Alma Guerrero of UCLA; Dr. Anthony Bui of the University of Washington; and Narayan Sastry of the University of Michigan.