Racism Bad For Your Health

Anne Saunders, AP, October 5, 2006

Concord—Experiencing racial or ethnic discrimination could be hazardous to your health.

That’s what a new public health study found, conducted by the New Hampshire Minority Health Coalition in Manchester with help from researchers at Brandeis and the universities of Michigan and New Hampshire.

“If I feel discriminated against, I may be less likely to seek care,” said the Minority Health Coalition’s Jeanie Holt, one of the study’s authors, as she reflected on why discrimination and poorer health may be related.

Half of all participants, almost 700 in all, reported that discrimination impeded their ability to achieve their goals; half reported that they felt discomfort in the way others treated them because of their race; and one-quarter reported encountering discrimination in health care.

The study, using data from 2002-2003, was published this month in the American Journal of Public Health. It found that the longer African and Latino immigrants are in New Hampshire, which is mostly white, the more likely they were to report experiences of discrimination and the more likely that is to correlate with poorer scores on a survey of mental and physical well-being.

It’s this latter result that surprised some researchers, who say the issue will require further study.

“Increasing length of residency may lead to more experiences with and recognition of discrimination,” the report speculates. In the early days of adjusting to a new culture, it’s not always easy for immigrants to tell when they’re being treated unfairly, Holt said.

The survey did not focus exclusively on issues of discrimination but covered a wide variety of health-related issues for African Americans and African and Latino immigrants—from dietary and exercise habits to problems with language, cost and insurance. Other questions covered general physical health, mental health and social functioning. Some of data also was used as part of a study of blood pressure, Holt said.

But for this study, researchers compared answers to questions about discrimination and compared them against answers to questions about mental and physical well-being.

“Discrimination may be an important predictor of poor mental health status among black and Latino immigrants,” the study concludes.

That comes as no surprise to Eva Castillo of the New Hampshire Immigrants Rights Task Force. She helps many immigrants navigate the health care system and said she’s seen immigrants go ignored in hospital emergency rooms while the needs of white patients are promptly addressed. She remembered one Latina mother who had to fight with hospital administrators to get an interpreter when her young daughter was being operated on.

“There’s a lot of ignorance,” she said. “I see it in the way doctors treat their patients.”

The discovery of a correlation between discrimination and poorer health is hardly unique to New Hampshire, Holt said.

Holt said the results of the study have been presented to some community health providers and the hope is that it will lead to changes that make it easier for immigrants to get the help they need.

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“Policies designed to reduce discrimination and promote civil rights may not only be a moral imperative, but also a key tool in protecting the public health,” said David Laflamme, another of the study’s authors and a research assistant professor in health management and policy at the University of New Hampshire.

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