In the past, research has shown that the black-American community’s exposure to social inequality and discrimination has had a negative impact on their mental health. To summarize this general theory, Dr. Kwame McKenzie states, “In the USA, interpersonal discrimination has been associated with increased rates of hypertension, depression and stress” (Chakraborty). Despite the several social and technological advances that the United States has made over the past few decades, we have not necessarily freed ourselves from the constraints of racism. In a 2009 study evaluating the rates of perceived discrimination among blacks, 60.9% claimed to have experienced day-to-day racism (Keyes). Past studies have used these statistics to prove that this perceived discrimination is a stressor that can cause a variety of mental illnesses, ranging from anxiety, to depression, to phobia. However, a recent paradigm shift has occurred, changing the way researchers are looking at black-American psychology.
Psychologists have recognized a certain fortitude within the black community, leading them to believe that discrimination, in actuality, has not had as much of a deteriorating effect as previously understood. To prove this theory, researchers compared the psychological health of both blacks and whites and discovered that in today’s society, blacks actually have better mental health than whites (Keyes). But why do black-Americans have such high psychological health? Since blacks experience significantly more racism than whites, shouldn’t blacks have worse mental health? Psychologists infer that despite discrimination, many blacks actually exhibit a certain resilience that causes them to have better psychological health. Given this knowledge, it is important to consider what implications this shift could have for the future. It could alter the way Americans view black-American psychology and even have drastic effects on practices such as affirmative action.
Not too long ago, psychological research focused on the notion that racism has a negative impact on the mental health of black-Americans. In an NPR segment on Mental Health in the Black Community, Dr. Primm corroborates such data, affirming, “culture and race definitely play a role. The fact that African-Americans are often looked upon negatively, unfortunately, in our society…contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness” (Primm). The idea that black-Americans have better mental health defies what is anticipated, thus creating a paradox. Research has shown that physical and mental illness are comorbid, meaning they occur together and as a result of each other. This is primarily because mental illness can cause physical disabilities. “Biomedical research consistently finds that blacks have worse physical health than whites, even after controlling for socioeconomic status or SES. This relationship is expected, given blacks’ disproportionate exposure to psychosocial stress and discrimination” (Mouzon). However, research suggests that black-Americans have lower rates of mental illness than whites. The fact that blacks can maintain their mental health despite the increased levels of physical illness within their race, demonstrates a resilience with vast advantages, thus demonstrating a paradox.
In Corey L. M. Keyes’s analysis of mental health within black and white communities, Keyes examines both the differences in daily experiences with discrimination and the differences in overall mental health between blacks and whites. According to the MIDUS national sample, black-Americans have higher rates of mental health in all categories, but higher rates of perceived discrimination as well. Usually when analyzing health differences between blacks and whites, a scale has to be added to each regression equation to account for the major differences in discrimination. However, even before scaling the statistics, black-Americans still have better mental health (Keyes). Now researchers are focusing on the reasons why discrimination does not have as negative results as previously assumed, and why blacks have better mental health. This is not to say that racism has improved blacks’ mental health. It simply means that, “were it not for discrimination, levels of psychological well-being would be even higher for blacks than whites” (Keyes).
Nevertheless, there is still fairly current research suggesting that blacks have poor mental health. In a 2010 study conducted by Lee Pachter, a professor at Drexel University College of Medicine, Professor Patcher examined the self-esteem of teenagers of Hispanic and African-American descent. After distributing the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Questionnaire, he concluded that a strong correlation exists between discrimination and depression (Olivarez). So now we are left with two contradicting views of black-American psychology. Which data do we trust? It may take years of further research to answer this question. Whether or not black-Americans truly do have better mental health than whites, I’ve decided to continue in exploring the idea that blacks have higher rates of mental health because it creates such an unanticipated paradox.
To further investigate this concept that blacks have better mental health, I researched suicide rates between different races in the US. While I recognize that not all suicides are a result of mental illness, “Poor mental health is the common proximal determinant of suicide…approximately one-half of suicides have been diagnosed with a mental disorder and received therapy from a mental health professional” (Rockette et al.). In a cross-sectional study which used information from the US National Center for Health Statistics, it was revealed that in all age groups, whites had twice as high rates of suicide than blacks and Hispanics. If psychological illness does impact suicide rates to such a high degree, then this study consequently suggests that whites have lower mental health than blacks. Although previous research has shown that black-Americans have worse mental health, records consistently show that whites have higher suicide rates. This provides reasonable doubt for those sources that claim blacks have inferior mental health.
Now the question remains: what are the causes for the higher rates of mental health in the black-American community? Researchers agree upon the idea that a resilience does exist within blacks. The Task Force on Resilience and Strength in African American Children and Adolescents, an organization committed to transforming psychology’s “approach to African American children and youth in the areas of research, practice, education, and policy,” defines resilience as “a dynamic, multidimensional construct that incorporates the bidirectional interaction between individuals and their environments within contexts (family, peer, school and community, and society).” However, they are still working to fully explain the source behind this resilience. Keyes credits black resilience to a number of causes.
Historically, religious attendance has always been significantly higher among blacks than whites. According to Keyes’s research, “Numerous studies have shown that religious attendance is associated with increased levels of subjective well-being and lower psychological distress and mental illness in general,” which suggests that blacks’ religious involvement has positively impacted their mental health (Keyes). Blacks use religion as a protective way to cope with inequality and discrimination. Socializing and identifying with each other on a racial and religious level has helped to instill meaning and pride into their lives (Keyes). In the memoire, A Hope and the Unseen, Cedric Jennings, a black college student, reveals how he relied on his faith in religion and God to help him cope with the adversity he faced. He declares, “I am very religious, and I know that the only reason I have achieved so much is because I continued to put God first in everything that I do. It is He who brought me through many situations in my life that could have been my downfall” (Suskind 107). An unrelenting faith in God has helped bring many people through times of strife and adversity. It is no surprise that the higher mental health of blacks is partly attributed to involvement in religion.
Research has also identified blacks’ need for meaning in life as a contributor to their overall resilience. To overcome the hardships of social adversity and discrimination, black-Americans as a whole have committed themselves to deriving meaning from the society they live in. According to Keyes, “the ability to create or find meaning to one’s life, when lived under adversity, provides an important source of resilience” (Keyes). Psychologists link a lack of meaning in life with increased psychopathology. Because blacks face higher levels of social inequality, there is a greater need for them to find meaning in their own lives. Accordingly, higher levels of meaning in life are associated with more religious beliefs (Keyes).
So what does this mean? If black-Americans do in fact possess better psychological health, what do we do with this newfound information? Among the many implications of this paradigm shift, the most notable consequence may be its effect on affirmative action. According to the NAACP, President Johnson employed the practice of affirmative action in 1965 to provide equal opportunities for minority groups and women. Due to disparities between blacks’ and whites’ socio-economic status and access to quality education, universities and employers adopted this practice to level out the playing field, benefiting minorities. If in later years it becomes widely acknowledged that blacks have better mental health, we may see policies such as affirmative action fade away. We can also use the studies and statistics supporting this paradigm shift to continue to reverse any existing discrimination in America. While this research does not definitively prove that black-Americans have better mental health, the fact that such ideas are becoming more widely accepted, exposes that the United States has made evident progress in its societal views.
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Chakraborty, Apu, and Kwame McKenzie. “Does Racial Discrimination Cause Mental Illness?” The British Journal of Psychiatry (2002)
Keyes, Corey L. M. “The Black-White Paradox in Health: Flourishing in the Face of Social Inequality and Discrimination.” Journal of Personality
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Primm, Dr. Annelle, Dr. William Lawson, and Farai Chideya. Mental Health in the Black Community. National Public Radio. 26 Mar. 2008.
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