Provocative new research suggests that prejudice and depression are intrinsically linked. Traditionally, studies of depression and prejudice fall within different areas of study and treatment.
In the research, investigators posit that many cases of depression may be caused by prejudice from the self or from another person.
The findings by William Cox of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues are published in the journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science.
As an example of the theory, consider the following sentence: “I really hate _____. I hate the way _____ look. I hate the way _____ talk.”
What words belong in the blanks? It’s possible that the statement expresses prejudice toward a stigmatized group: “I really hate Black people,” “I hate the way gay men look,” or “I hate the way Jews talk.”
But this statement actually comes from a depressed patient talking about herself: “I really hate me. I hate the way I look. I hate the way I talk.”
The fact that the statement could have been completed in two equally plausible ways hints at a deep connection between prejudice and depression.
Accordingly, Cox and colleagues argue that the kinds of stereotypes about others that lead to prejudice, and the kinds of beliefs or perceptions an individual may have about themselves, are basically similar.
Researchers posit that prejudice and depression are integrated. As such, stereotypes are activated in a “source” who then expresses prejudice toward a “target,” causing the target to become depressed.
This depression caused by prejudice — which the researchers call “deprejudice” — can occur at many levels.
In the classic case, prejudice causes depression at the societal level (e.g., Nazis’ prejudice causing Jews’ depression), but this cause and effect can also occur at the interpersonal level (e.g., an abuser’s prejudice causing an abusee’s depression), or even at the intrapersonal level, within a single person (e.g., a man’s prejudice against himself causing his depression).
Researchers say the theory helps to explain cases of depression that are driven primarily by the negative thoughts that people have about themselves or that others have about them and does not address “depressions caused by neurochemical, genetic, or inflammatory processes.”
This association, that many people with depression are not “just” depressed – they may have prejudice against themselves that causes their depression – could significantly impact the way in which depression is viewed and treated.
Cox and colleagues propose that interventions developed and used by depression researchers – such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness training – may be especially useful in combating prejudice. And some interventions developed and used by prejudice researchers may be especially useful in treating depression.
In sum, viewing depression and prejudice as related will help psychological scientists and clinicians better understand these occurrences and lead to the development of cross-disciplinary interventions that can target both problems.