Frequent Discrimination Can Lead to Mental Health Challenges for Young Adults

Health Care Disparities and Frequent Discrimination Adversely Impacts Mental Health Study Finds

Yvonne Lei recently completed a study at the UCLA measuring the impact repeated incidents of discrimination can have on a young adult. Her research hits close to home, as she admits she has faced discrimination during her upbringing in North Carolina and understands the long-term impacts it can have.

“I can speak from my personal experience with my family, you can’t throw out the word therapist out there, that’s not something they would feel comfortable with,” said Lei, who comes from an Asian-American family conscious about the stigmas that surround mental health.

Lei’s research found young adults who have experienced discrimination, which includes racism, sexism, ageism, or negativity towards one’s physical appearance, can have both short and long-term behavioral and mental health problems. Between 2007 and 2017 the study tracked a representative sample of some 1,834 men and women ages 18 through 28 and from various ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Lei says while the span of time for the study was pre-pandemic, those years were pivotal to for millennials because of the societal climate at the time. America was going through the Great Recession, which created a tougher job market for young people looking for viable work.

The average student loan debt in 2017 was $26,900 dollars for graduates of public four-year universities and $32,600 for graduates of private nonprofit four-year schools, according to CNBC. African-American college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates, the Education Data Initiative reports.

America’s culture during that ten-year span included several high-profile cases involving the death of Black men and women, some at the hands of police. The political climate also was rife with racial undertones as the Obama presidency transitioned to the election of President Trump. Lei says these series of events played a role in the amount of stress and discrimination young people experienced as they transitioned into independent adults.

“With our study, we were able to track associations between different types of discrimination, how frequently they are experiencing it with these different mental health outcomes, and we actually found very strong associations which are not surprising but definitely concerning and quantifiable with our study,” said Lei.

Researchers used data from the University of Michigan’s Transition to Adulthood Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics survey to find that 93 percent of people say they experienced some form of discrimination, consequently becoming more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

“If you experience [discrimination] more frequently over the years you have a higher risk of developing these mental health disorders just because your body is responding to these stressful events that are associated with different types of discrimination,” said Lei.

The study also highlights disparities in mental health treatment, and for young people of color, the disparities are more heightened because of limited access to mental health services and fewer mental health professionals being culturally competent to best diagnose people of color, resulting in incorrect diagnosis.

Dr. Charmain Jackman is a licensed psychologist and founder of the InnoPsych network of therapists. Jackman and many of the InnoPsych therapists focus on areas involving psychological impact of racial trauma and discrimination stress and mental health. She says racial bias in the mental health profession is real problem. “[Racial bias] is embedded in the way we diagnose clients, and we sit in health as well where people’s symptoms are minimized,” said Jackman.

Lei’s study highlights high most mental health disorders begin to show up by age 24, which is a reason Lei finds the age range of the study participants crucial. She says the most common mental health disorders the study found among participants include anxiety, depression, substance and alcohol abuse.

Lei is encouraged to see the pandemic has provided added focus on mental health, which helps breaks down the stigma associated with it even among communities of color, but she puts the onus on the health care and mental health care professions to do a better job at removing barriers so everyone has access to health care treatments.

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