By Mark Gold, MD
A recent study brings forward some important insight into how racial discrimination affects behavioral health outcomes among young Black Americans. Read further to find out more about the negative impact of discrimination and how mindfulness may prove to be an effective strategy in mitigating associated health risks.
Impact of racism on young black Americans
A significant body of literature exists documenting the harmful impact of racial discrimination on psychological, physical and mental health, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular problems, problems with physical well-being, and substance use. These negative consequences are particularly significant for American Indians and young Black—especially male—Americans, who experience a higher prevalence of discrimination than any other racial group. Historians and scholars from various disciplines have documented the pervasive influence of racism on American society and culture. The most recent data released by the CDC on suicide underscore the importance of including effects of discrimination on the health and well-being of American Indian (AI) people. Among the many health problems affected by racial discrimination and oppression, both historical and current, are substance use disorders. Epidemiological studies have documented greater drug and alcohol-related morbidity and mortality among AI/AN Alaska Natives compared to other ethnic groups, and culturally appropriate, effective interventions are sorely needed. African American overdose deaths from heroin increased over 200% from 2010 - 2014 but these deaths were mostly ignored as white deaths increased an astronomical 250+% during that time.
From 2016-2017, the mortality rate among Black, non-Hispanic individuals rose by 25 percent, compared to the 11 percent increase among white, non-Hispanic individuals. The increase among Latinx people just outpaced the rate for white people at 11.5 percent, emphasizing the crisis is not limited to white populations.
At the state level, 2017 opioid overdose death rates were actually higher for Black, non-Hispanic individuals than for white individuals in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Washington, West Virginia (often called the “epicenter” of the opioid crisis), Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. In Washington state, the drug and opioid-involved overdose death rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives also far surpasses that of White individuals.
All young adults are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as substance use, and are more vulnerable to psychiatric issues, as the brain continues to develop. For racial minorities, emerging adulthood may also be marked by overt racism and discrimination. In addition, we live in a time where we have heightened awareness of existing hegemonic societal power structures. It is common for many young people to ask about equality, level playing fields, and the extent to which institutionalized racism may impact their lives. Increased exposure to racial discrimination, greater vulnerability to psychiatric disorders experienced in youth, and decreased access to treatment makes this a particularly critical developmental period for black young adults. As a result, a growing body of research has focused on assessing and alleviating associated health risks. Despite these challenges, Black Americans do not appear to have higher rates of substance use disorders than any other group studied in the United States. We have somewhat uniform rates of substance misuse among racial and ethnic populations, but there is a disproportionate rate of drug arrests for African-Americans. In addition, members of racial and ethnic minority groups are most likely to experience barriers that impede their ability to access substance use disorder treatment.
The moderating effect of mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined as the ability to apply non-judgmental attention and consciousness in the present moment. Shown to be directly related to positive health outcomes and psychological well-being, mindfulness has been increasingly implemented as a tool by many behavioral health providers and other practitioners to help improve the mental health of their patient populations.
Growing evidence suggests that mindfulness promotes successful coping in response to stressful experiences. Individuals with higher mindfulness scores on the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire also demonstrated increased emotional awareness, greater ability to regulate emotions and were less likely to be emotionally reactive to distress.1
Mindfulness is also believed to help individuals separate experiences from a sense of self-worth, allowing them to identify and better cope with alienating or isolating experiences, such as discrimination.
Zapolski et. al. recruited 388 Black young adults, aged between 18 and 24 years, who completed measures assessing past-year experiences of racial discrimination, depressive symptoms, anxiety, alcohol consumption, and trait mindfulness.
Over half of the participants (57.5%) reported being exposed to racial discrimination “once in a while” or more during the past year. Rates of depressive and anxiety symptoms were found to be ranging from moderate to severe, respectively, whereas measures of alcohol consumption were determined within the at-risk range for males and just below the cut-off for females.
Results revealed that trait mindfulness could potentially buffer the repercussions of racial discrimination on behavioral health outcomes and may serve as a tool in affective-based intervention programs to promote adaptive coping in response to discriminatory instances. Authors anticipate that intervention programs incorporating mindfulness techniques may be especially advantageous for limiting race-related stress outcomes for black young adults.
In reality, only large-scale structural and cultural modifications can reduce discrimination at the societal level. Until such changes are made, the authors believe, researchers should continue to explore effective strategies to mitigate the negative toll discriminatory episodes can exert on behavioral health and academic outcomes among young Black Americans.
Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Krietemeyer, J., & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13(1), 27–45.
Zapolski, T. C., Faidley, M. T., & Beutlich, M. R. (2019). The Experience of Racism on Behavioral Health Outcomes: The Moderating Impact of Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 10(1), 168-178.
Dr. Mark S. Gold is a teacher of the year, translational researcher, author, mentor and inventor best known for his work on the brain systems underlying the effects of opiate drugs, cocaine and food. Read more by Dr. Gold here.