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Wash U study links depression among Black college graduates to racial discrimination

Susannah Lohr
St. Louis Public Radio
A recent Washington University in St. Louis study finds that high levels of depression in Black college-educated people is related to racial discrimination. Researchers said that the depression levels from the study are alarming and that mental health professionals should be aware of the experiences Black people are faced with.

Researchers from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis found that college-educated Black Americans are suffering racial discrimination that leads to depression.

For “Understanding the Impact of Contemporary Racism on the Mental Health of Middle Class Black Americans”, researchers conducted a nationwide online survey of 528 college graduates over 24 years old to determine if there is a health cost to being a college-educated Black American.

“In contemporary times, we know that oftentimes racism is a lot more subtle and nuanced than people think,” Darrell Hudson, the study’s lead author. “So a lot of folks when we talk about racism, people will immediately think, ‘Oh, you got to use like an epithet, or you got to call somebody a name’ … and that's not necessarily how contemporary racism functions nowadays.”

The study found that about 40% of respondents reported signs of major depressive symptoms and about 16% reported that they had been diagnosed with depression by a medical doctor. The findings also revealed that everyday discrimination accounted for 22% of the respondents' depressive symptoms.

Hudson and Wash U public health graduate students Akilah Collins-Anderson and William Hutson measured exposure to racism by determining if respondents experienced daily and major life discrimination. Researchers asked respondents if they received less courtesy or respect than others, poorer service in restaurants or stores or have been followed or harassed in a store because of their race. They also asked if respondents have been unfairly fired from a job, unfairly denied a job promotion or bank loan or unfairly stopped by police because of their race.

Researchers also looked at how people recall discriminatory experiences and anticipate enduring discrimination during future events. When people enter certain spaces, they anticipate some type of unfair treatment, and that level of anticipatory stress can be detrimental to a person’s health, said Hudson, who is an associate professor of public health at the Brown School.

The study was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published on Jan. 17 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Hudson said he is surprised to find that discrimination could potentially trump some of the benefits of education among Black Americans.

“The assumption … traditionally for public health is that you get more education, more income, more occupational prestige, and your health will improve,” Hudson said. “But in this particular case, among the sample of college-educated Black Americans, that doesn't necessarily bear out.”

Researchers are interviewing more Black college graduates about their experiences with racial discrimination. Some respondents said they have switched careers because of stress-related racism.

The irony is that Black people work hard in their careers to advance and then find out later that they have to quit for health reasons, Hudson said.

Research in various fields suggests that there is an extensive amount of racial discrimination that Black people experience in the labor market, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Wash U. Black people can endure racism while applying for jobs, in entry-level positions and while trying to form relationships at work to promote advancement, said Harvey Wingfield, who did not participate in the study.

Harvey Wingfield, who examines racial and gender inequality in the workplace, said she is not surprised that depression among upwardly mobile Black people is common.

“I have talked with workers who have described feeling really beaten down by experiencing very overt explicit discrimination,” she said. “It's not uncommon at all to see people wanting to leave because of blocked routes to advancement or because people are just experiencing so much harassment and discrimination that the workplace becomes untenable.”

Hudson hopes the study’s results makes more mental health and other providers aware of the distinct stressors that Black Americans are faced with throughout their lifetime, which could help physicians ask better questions during visits that would help improve Black health outcomes.

“Depression is kind of the tip of the iceberg to me,” Hudson said. “As more people are exposed to discrimination, there's hypertension … chronic stress really is quite harmful.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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