Little is known about how discrimination affects youths’ mental health and their willingness to help others. University of Missouri (MU) researchers are helping to close that gap; a new study finds that young Latino immigrants who feel discriminated against had more depressive symptoms and were less likely to perform altruistic behaviors after experiencing discrimination.
“It’s important to consider that experiencing discrimination starts to wear on cognitive and emotional resources that youth may have, which can lead to symptoms of depression, sadness, and withdrawal,” said Alexandra Davis, a doctoral candidate in the MU Department of Human Development and Family Science.
“Once they are experiencing these withdrawal symptoms, it becomes harder for them to engage in selfless forms of helping because they have less resources available to give to others, and it works both ways. Experiencing discrimination and becoming more withdrawn and less engaged in helping behaviors, in turn, might contribute to depressive symptoms. It can become a cycle.”
For the study, 302 Latino immigrants between the ages of 13 and 17 completed three questionnaires over the course of a year about discrimination experiences, mental health and prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering or helping others.
The youth had lived in the United States for five years or less. The study controlled for the teens’ previous levels of depression and involvement in helping behaviors in order to observe changes over time, at six months and one year after experiencing discrimination.
“This study gives us a window into the experiences of Latino immigrant adolescents who recently arrived in the U.S.,” said study co-author Dr. Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity and Multicultural Studies in MU’s College of Human Environmental Sciences.
“The reports youth provided on discrimination are not necessarily experiences that have accumulated over a long period of time. This perceived discrimination over a short period of time is already having a significant impact on their mental health and their social functioning. We can only imagine what the effects of discrimination may be like over a longer period of time.”
The perception of discrimination, especially among marginalized groups, is an important indicator for how the group will interact with others. In the study, researchers found that perceived discrimination can undermine positive social behaviors toward others.
Additionally, adolescence is a time when peers are important, and perceived isolation from peers and experiencing barriers in school can impact development — as well as health and long-term well-being, Davis said.
“So many challenges and forces exist that impinge individuals’ abilities to care for others, to be compassionate and empathetic toward others,” Carlo said.
“For Latino adolescents and racial and ethnic minorities, this research demonstrates that discrimination poses an uncontrollable, additional set of challenges in addition to the challenges everyone experiences, whether financial, academic, or interpersonal.”
“Trained mental-health professionals and accessible mental-health services could help buffer youth against these depressive symptoms,” Davis said.
The study will be published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.