Racism Breeds Depression and Other Problems

The sting of racism can lead to depression or behavioral problems, according to a study of African-American children in the latest issue of Child Development.

So, is a black adolescent doomed to suffer these problems after coming of age in a racist environment?

No. Teens who have had close relationships with their parents, positive friendships and good experiences at school are less likely to experience these long-term effects, even though they cannot escape discrimination completely.

A team of researchers in California, Iowa and Georgia tracked the development of more than 700 African-American children for five years. The children were 10 to 12 years old when the study began.

During three interviews over the course of the study, researchers asked the kids about any racial discrimination they had experienced or witnessed, about their friends and social activities, and about their own feelings.

Researchers asked a child's primary caregivers how they and the child got along, and how the child felt about school.

They found that kids who experienced more racism, like name calling, insults or stereotyping over the five years, were more likely to report sleep troubles, mood swings, difficulty concentrating or other symptoms of depression.

African-American boys were also more likely to shoplift or get into fights.

But not all the kids ran into psychological and behavioral difficulties as they passed through adolescence. Kids were less likely to develop depression or antisocial behavior if their parents were supportive and closely involved in their lives.

"The outlook was brighter, though, for children whose homes, friends and schools protected them from discrimination's negative influences," said Gene Brody, director of the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia, and the study's lead researcher, in a press release.

"Children, whose parents stayed involved in their lives, kept track of their whereabouts, treated them with warm affection, and communicated clearly with them, were less likely to develop problems due to their experiences with discrimination."

Earlier research on adult African-Americans also linked racism to depression. Studies of adult Hispanics and Asians have shown the same thing.

But this study doesn't just show the effects of racism -- it looks at adolescents and shows how those effects can be avoided. The study authors say that children entering adolescence are just beginning to form their own personal and ethnic identities, and that racism can demean a positive ethnic identity.

But parents, friends and teachers can help kids keep a positive picture despite the discriminations that kids might face.

"The positive effect is tied in with ethnic-pride type parenting," said Frank Gibbons, a researcher and professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

The positive scenario also comes from friends who encourage positive behaviors, like community service, and from teachers who take a positive interest in their students.

"It is possible to inoculate the children with self-esteem," said Gibbons.