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Why more discrimination means more health problems

Harold Mandel's picture
Left out due to discrimination

There is a clear association between discrimination and health status. People generally appear to suffer from more mental health problems and physical problems when they are victims of discrimination. New research shows that people hit with multiple forms of discrimination suffer even more than others.

It is predicted by the double disadvantage hypothesis that adults who are in more than one disadvantaged status may experience poorer health than their singly disadvantaged and privileged counterparts, reports the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Past research which has had an objective of testing this thesis has yielded mixed findings due partially to a failure to examine the actual role of discrimination. In this analysis data is used from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States to investigate the relationship which exists between multiple disadvantaged statuses and health and whether or not multiple forms of interpersonal discrimination contribute to this association.

The results of this analysis have suggested that multiply disadvantaged adults are at a greater risk of experiencing major depression, poor physical health, and functional limitations in comparison to their singly disadvantaged and privileged counterparts. Furthermore, it has been discovered that multiple forms of discrimination partially mediate the relationship which exists between multiple stigmatized statuses and health. What this means is that if considered together multiply disadvantaged adults are confronted with a “double disadvantage” in health. This is due partially to their disproportionate exposure to discrimination.

What we have learned therefore is that double discrimination does have a significant impact on physical and mental health, reports the Health Behavior News Service, which is part of the Center for Advancing Health, in a review of this research. Adults who are members of two or more disadvantaged groups have reported experiencing more forms of discrimination than singly disadvantaged or privileged adults. Disadvantaged groups for consideration include:

1: Cultural or racial minorities

2: Women

3: Gay, lesbian or transgender people

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4: Obese people

Due to exposure to multiple forms of discrimination, multi-disadvantaged adults have been found to be at increased risk for mental distress and poor physical health. Eric Anthony Grollman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, has said, “Discrimination is broadly understood as unfair treatment on the basis of one’s social group membership.” Grollman goes on to share the belief that all of our significant statuses come together to collectively shape our experiences and our health.

In his analysis Grollman analyzed data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States whose participants were between the ages of 25 to 74, in order to investigate relationships which exist among multiple disadvantaged statuses and forms of discrimination, along with considerations of both mental and physical health. Respondents were requested to report on how often they felt psychological distress during the past month and whether or not they met the criteria for major depressive disorder in the past year, in order to assess their mental health. These people were also requested to rate their physical health and any physical limitations which interfered with their everyday living.

Furthermore, these people were asked how frequently they experienced major lifetime discrimination of the nature which threatened their livelihood or life opportunities. They were also asked about less severe daily discrimination and what primary status the discrimination was based on. And these people were asked about how much discrimination of this nature interfered with their lives.

As noted, a person who belongs to multiple disadvantaged groups may be confronted with a “double disadvantage” in comparison to both privileged and singly disadvantaged people. Among the adults who are members of more than one of the disadvantaged groups there was a greater likelihood of experiencing everyday and lifetime major discrimination. This group was also more likely to view these experiences as being stressful. It was observed that these people were also more likely to report poor health than adults who are singly disadvantaged or privileged adults.

The disparities which were observed in physical health have been partially explained by the increased number of forms of discrimination which multiply disadvantaged people must deal with. Mathew D. Gayman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Georgia State University’s Department of Sociology, has pointed out that Grollman’s work provides one of the first empirical studies which documents the association between poor health and multiple forms of discrimination.

It has been my observation that people who are discriminated against suffer a great deal more stress in their lives. Clearly, this stress is often associated with poorer mental health and physical health than other people. It therefore makes sense that the more discrimination a person is hit with the more serious the impact will be on their well being.

I suggest that an awareness of this serious issue should encourage more aggressive initiatives to end discrimination against people in disadvantaged statuses. Furthermore, an understanding of this problem as it presently exists may help physicians and other health care providers to assist people who are discriminated against to develop stronger emotional coping mechanisms to help them deal with this problem, while also addressing any associated physical problems.

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