Study examines link between racial discrimination and mental and physical health

June 30, 2006 -- A study of the association between physical and mental health and racial discrimination conducted at the Mailman School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Universities of Alabama, Michigan, and North Carolina, found that racial discrimination is associated with worse self-reported physical and mental health in African Americans, regardless of gender, skin color and socioeconomic indicators.

Self-reported racial discrimination was common, according to 75% of the participants, but more common in men than in women (78% versus 73%). "Our study shows that perceived discrimination was associated with worse physical and mental health, a finding that persisted after adjusting for age, education and income," said Luisa Borrell, DDS, PhD, of the Mailman School of Public Health's Department of Epidemiology and principal investigator. "However, the associations were stronger for women. Moreover, in women only, perceived discrimination was associated with worse mental health among those with low-income as compared to their high-income counterparts."

For the first time, researchers investigated the interaction between skin color, a proxy for discrimination, and discrimination as they affect health outcomes. Report conclusions indicate that skin color did not affect the association between perceived discrimination and physical and mental health. However, perceived discrimination and skin color were associated with higher income and higher education. "Specifically, highly educated and high-income African Americans were more likely to report experiencing discrimination and have light skin when compared to their counterparts," Dr. Borrell observed. "It is possible that lighter skinned African Americans with higher socioeconomic position report more discrimination because they have greater opportunity to be exposed to situations in which they are discriminated or because they are more aware of subtle forms of discrimination."

In addition to reporting comprehensively on the health effects of discrimination, the study also is unique for the population-based nature of the sample; its focus on young to middle-aged adults; and the wide ranges of educational attainment and income represented in the sample. However, because both exposure and outcome measures were self-reported, it is possible that individuals who reported worse health also tended to report more discrimination.


Source of the data was from the CARDIA study, a prospective study of cardiovascular risk among young adults.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. A copy of the study can be accessed online at the Social Science & Medicine journal website:

About the Mailman School of Public Health The only accredited school of public health in New York City, and among the first in the nation Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health provides instruction and research opportunities to more than 950 graduate students in pursuit of masters and doctoral degrees. Its students and more than 270 multi-disciplinary faculty engage in research and service in the city, nation, and around the world, concentrating on biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health policy and management, population and family health, and sociomedical sciences.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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