Depression and Discrimination

High socioeconomic status increases perceived racial bias and depression risk in black young adults

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Higher parental education—which has a protective effect for white youth—can increase the risk of depression for black youth, according to a study investigating disparities in depression among young adults. 

Harvard Medical School researchers at MassGeneral Hospital for Children also found that among young black people of high socioeconomic status, their greater perceptions of discrimination cancelled out the beneficial effects of parental education.

These findings are published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

“High socioeconomic status (SES)—particularly higher parent education—is known to be protective against depressive symptoms in young adults,” said Elizabeth Goodman, HMS professor of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and senior author of the paper. 

“But the relationship between higher SES and reduced depression is not consistent for black individuals. Our key finding helps explain this inconsistency: For black youth, we found that higher parental education is a double-edged sword, buffering against the development of depression but also leading to increased discrimination, which in and of itself causes depression," Goodman said.

"Overall, the protective effects of high parent education are zeroed out by the negative effects of increased discrimination experienced because of that high socioeconomic status,” she said. 

The investigators examined data from the Princeton School District Study, a nine-year study led by Goodman that enrolled a biracial group of fifth- to twelfth-graders from a Midwestern suburban school system in the 2001-2002 school year. 

The researchers analyzed information from 545 participants who were followed into young adulthood, when they were from 21 to 25 years old. The participants were surveyed about both perceived lifetime ethnic discrimination and recent depressive symptoms, using well-validated measures of both.

Among the 296 participants who identified themselves as non-Hispanic white, perceptions of lifetime discrimination steadily decreased as levels of parental education increased. But among the 249 participants who identified themselves as non-Hispanic black—who reported more lifetime discrimination overall—the relationship between education and discrimination was more complex. 

While black participants whose parents had a high school education or less experienced more discrimination than those whose families had a parent with some college or vocational training; those whose parents had advanced or professional degrees reported the greatest perceived discrimination of all: almost 2 times as high as white young adults from similarly educated families and 1.2 times higher than black participants whose parents had a high school education or less. 

“Among all participants, whether black or white, we found that the more discrimination young adults reported feeling, the more likely they were to report symptoms of depression,” said study lead author Erika Cheng, HMS research fellow in pediatrics at Mass General.

“Taken together, our findings suggests that high socioeconomic status black young adults, who typically might not be thought of as being at increased risk for discrimination and depression, are actually at risk for both,” Cheng said.

While the study did not examine why black young adults from highly educated families had greater perceived lifetime discrimination, Goodman noted some possible factors. 

“In this country, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to have lower socioeconomic status, so being a black youth from a highly educated family is less common than being a white youth from a highly educated family. These upper-SES black youth likely live in upper-SES, predominantly white communities where they may be made to feel out of place,” she said.

“That’s discrimination, and if you talk to young people, black youth consistently report frequent experiences of discrimination—from being followed around in a store to being targeted by police— regardless of their socioeconomic status,” she added.

“As a country, we have long pushed to eliminate educational disparities between black and white youth, but we are just now beginning to have a dialogue about the critically important issue of how race and socioeconomic status intersect,” Goodman added. “Our study suggests that, even if we do eliminate educational disparities, black youth will not reap the same health benefits as white youth until we confront these larger societal issues.”

The Princeton School District Study was sponsored by National Institutes of Health grants HD041527 and DK59183 and William T. Grant Foundation grant 2151. Other supported came from NIH grants T32-HD075727 T35-HD07446.

Adapted from a Mass General news release.