Posted on May 7, 2009

Racism Hurts Kids’ Mental Health

Marilyn Elias, USA Today, May 5, 2009

Fifth-graders who feel they’ve been mistreated because of their skin color are much more likely than classmates without such feelings to have symptoms of mental disorders, especially depression, a study suggests.

There is evidence that racial discrimination increases the odds that adolescents and adults will develop mental health problems, but this is the first study to examine a possible link in children of varied races, says Tumaini Coker, the study co-author and a RAND Corp. researcher and UCLA pediatrician.

{snip} It’s possible that prejudice harms children’s mental health, but it is also possible that troubled kids prompt more discriminatory remarks from peers or that children with emotional problems perceive more bias, says study leader Mark Schuster, a Harvard pediatrician and pediatrics chief at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The link between perceived racism and mental disorders is strong, he adds. For example, Hispanics who report racism are more than three times as likely as other children to have symptoms of depression; blacks are more than twice as likely; and those of “other” minority races have almost quadruple the odds. {snip}


Prejudice was reported by 20% of blacks, 15% of Hispanics, 16% in the “other” category and 7% of whites.

Hispanics had the worst mental health effects, the study shows; perceptions of bias significantly increased their symptoms of all four disorders. About four out of five Hispanic children who felt prejudice had foreign-born parents. Black parents may buffer their children better, perhaps preparing them to expect some racism, Schuster speculates.

The study asked students whether they “ever” experienced racism, and that raises a question, says Rebecca Bigler, a University of Texas psychologist. {snip}

[Editor’s Note: “Perceived Racial/Ethnic Discrimination Among Fifth-Grade Students and Its Association With Mental Health,” by Tumaini R. Coker et al., can be read as an HTML or PDF file here. There is a charge.]

© 2009 American Public Health Association

DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.144329


Perceived Racial/Ethnic Discrimination Among Fifth-Grade Students and Its Association With Mental Health

Tumaini R. Coker, MD, MBA, Marc N. Elliott, PhD, David E. Kanouse, PhD, Jo Anne Grunbaum, EdD, David C. Schwebel, PhD, M. Janice Gilliland, PhD, Susan R. Tortolero, PhD, Melissa F. Peskin, PhD and Mark A. Schuster, MD, PhD

Tumaini R. Coker is with the Department of Pediatrics, Mattel Children’s Hospital, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, and the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. Marc N. Elliott and David E. Kanouse are with the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. Jo Anne Grunbaum is with the Division of Adult and Community Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Research, Atlanta, GA. David C. Schwebel is with the Department of Psychology, University of Alabama, Birmingham. M. Janice Gilliland is with the Department of Maternal and Child Health, University of Alabama, Birmingham. Susan R. Tortolero and Melissa F. Peskin are with the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, University of Texas Health Science Center-Houston, Houston. Mark A. Schuster is with the Department of Medicine, Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, and the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica.

Correspondence: Requests for reprints should be sent to Tumaini R. Coker at UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, 1072 Gayley Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90024 (e-mail: [email protected]).

Objectives. We sought to describe the prevalence, characteristics, and mental health problems of children who experience perceived racial/ethnic discrimination.

Methods. We analyzed cross-sectional data from a study of 5147 fifth-grade students and their parents from public schools in 3 US metropolitan areas. We used multivariate logistic regression (overall and stratified by race/ethnicity) to examine the associations of sociodemographic factors and mental health problems with perceived racial/ethnic discrimination.

Results. Fifteen percent of children reported perceived racial/ethnic discrimination, with 80% reporting that discrimination occurred at school. A greater percentage of Black (20%), Hispanic (15%), and other (16%) children reported perceived racial/ethnic discrimination compared with White (7%) children. Children who reported perceived racial/ethnic discrimination were more likely to have symptoms of each of the 4 mental health conditions included in the analysis: depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder. An association between perceived racial/ethnic discrimination and depressive symptoms was found for Black, Hispanic, and other children but not for White children.

Conclusions. Perceived racial/ethnic discrimination is not an uncommon experience among fifth-grade students and may be associated with a variety of mental health disorders.