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  • A new study looked into the health effects of discrimination and found that young adults who are repeatedly exposed to discrimination face a higher risk of mental health and behavioral issues.
  • Approximately 93 percent of study participants disclosed that they experienced interpersonal discrimination at some point, most commonly due to age, physical appearance, sex, and race.
  • Most mental health conditions appear by age 24, which makes the transition period before adulthood a valuable window that can significantly impact people’s short- and long-term health outcomes.

There’s a well-established link between discrimination and its impact on health.

Older research has found that when people face discrimination due to age, race, sex, and physical appearance, they have higher rates of depression, psychological distress, and substance use.

A new study, which published in the journal Pediatrics on Nov. 8, looked into the health effects of discrimination over time. It found that young adults who are repeatedly exposed to discrimination face a higher risk of mental health and behavioral issues.

The study is the first to specifically look at discrimination’s impact on young adults, and how it impacts their health over time.

“Discrimination — or the differential treatment based on race, gender, age, physical appearance, or any other dimension of diversity — severely undermines people’s quality of life and life opportunities,” said Dr. Catherine McKinley, an assistant professor for the Tulane University School of Social Work.

“Rather than blame people for feeling the negative effects of mistreatment based on a disadvantaged status, it is important to acknowledge, explore, and ultimately seek to redress discrimination,” McKinley added.

Discrimination linked to poorer mental health

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles looked at the health data of 1,834 Americans between the ages of 18 and 28 over a 10-year period.

Approximately 93 percent of participants disclosed that they experienced interpersonal discrimination at some point, most commonly due to age (26 percent), physical appearance (19 percent), sex (14 percent), and race (13 percent).

Incidents of discrimination were measured using the Everyday Discrimination Scale. It surveyed participants on how often they were treated with less courtesy, received poorer service, treated by others as inferior, or felt others acted afraid of them or viewed them as dishonest.

Researchers found that the more incidents of discrimination someone experienced, the greater their risk of mental illness, psychological distress, and substance use.

Those who experienced frequent discrimination were 25 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of a mental health condition and twice as likely to develop psychological distress than people who experienced no or infrequent discrimination.

“This study confirms and extends a robust body of research indicating that discrimination negatively affects mental health,” McKinley said.

Researchers acknowledged that the different types of discrimination and negative mental health outcomes are intertwined with mental health care disparities, including access to care, provider bias, and institutional discrimination in healthcare, that have been linked to issues with the diagnosis and treatment of various health conditions.

Researchers hope the findings highlight the need to improve mental health services to better address and acknowledge the health impacts linked to discrimination.

“With more research on the mental health effects of discrimination, we can begin to implement more concrete changes to apply this knowledge in more effective interventions,” Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, told Healthline.

Romanoff hopes mental health care professionals will screen new patients for mental health disorders and ask about their experiences with discrimination.

McKinley said achieving greater equity begins with “acknowledging, addressing, and rebalancing the scales of society that discriminate and overburden underprivileged groups.”

Discrimination’s unique impact on young adults

Previous studies have explored the impact discrimination has on younger children along with older adults, but few have looked at how discrimination and other biases impact young adults.

According to the researchers, most mental health disorders appear by age 24, which makes the transition period before adulthood a valuable window that can significantly impact people’s short- and long-term health outcomes.

Romanoff said discrimination is particularly salient for young adults because their identity has not yet been solidified.

“Young adults have a greater tendency to personalize experiences and believe they mean something about them, rather than realizing it has more to do with their environment or the people around them,” Romanoff said.

These messages can be internalized, which can impact their self-esteem and lead to depression, anxiety, substance use, and other mental health problems, said McKinley.

Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a licensed clinical psychologist and media adviser for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, said young adults already experience significant pressure about what society expects of them personally and professionally.

The added stress caused by discrimination can take a massive toll on young people’s bodies and minds.

Lira de la Rosa said young people often find themselves at a crossroads where they’re trying to live up to societal expectations while navigating some of these stressful experiences.

“Our bodies and minds can only take so much, and after some time we will see that this chronic stress will lead to chronic medical conditions and other forms of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety,” Lira de la Rosa said.

The bottom line

There’s a well-established link between discrimination and worse health outcomes, but older research has largely looked at the effects of discrimination in young children and older adults.

A new study from UCLA set out to understand how discrimination impacts young adults between the ages of 18 and 28.

Researchers found that those who experienced more frequent acts of discrimination had a higher risk of mental illness and substance use.

The transitional period between childhood and adulthood is a valuable one that can significantly impact people’s short- and long-term health.

 



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