Perceived Racial Discrimination Can Be Harmful to Children's Mental Health

May 8, 2009

A new study that examines the link between racial discrimination and mental health disorders shows that students who feel ridiculed because of their skin color are more likely to feel symptoms of mental disorders.

A new study that examines the link between racial discrimination and mental health disorders shows that students who feel ridiculed because of their skin color are more likely to feel symptoms of mental disorders.

Tumaini Coker, lead author of the study, UCLA pediatrician), and RAND Corp. researcher — a non-profit institution that examines challenges within public and private schools around the world — based the study on previous findings that racial discrimination increases the chance of mental health problems in adolescents and adults. This new study found that a similar link exists between younger children from varying races.

Perceived racial and/or ethic discrimination was felt by 15% of the fifth-grade students and their parents who were surveyed. Black, Hispanic, and other children were more likely to report these feelings, at rates of 20%, 15%, and 16%, respectively, in comparison with whites, at 7%.

The children who reported feelings of racial discrimination were more likely to experience feelings of one of four mental disorders: depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder.

The greatest impact on mental health was seen with the Hispanic students. Their symptoms of each of the four disorders were most strongly felt by these students. Depression and conduct disorder were more commonly seen in Africa-American children, while whites who reported perceived discrimination experienced symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

The students and their parents who participated, 5147 in total, came from public schools in three US metropolitan areas, according to an abstract of the article that appeared in the May 2009 online version of the American Journal of Public Health.

"It was surprising to see positive associations between perceived racial and ethnic discrimination in the children and symptoms of all four examined mental health conditions," said Coker. "Parents, clinicians and teachers should be aware that children may experience racial and ethnic discrimination in and out of school and that there may be detrimental effects on their mental health."

To read UCLA’s press release about the study, please click here.