African-American fifth graders who experienced discrimination either personally or in their communities were more likely to suffer from the symptoms of depression, according to the findings, which are to be presented at the upcoming American Sociological Association meeting in Los Angeles next month.
"Racial discrimination is still very prevalent and kids have to deal with it day in and day out, and it can have very ugly consequences for a child's emotional well-being," says lead researcher Ron Simons, the director of the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research at Iowa State University in Ames.Simons and his colleagues have studied almost 900 African-American families from 41 communities in Iowa and Georgia since 1997 to see how family, community and school factors influence the development of these children. Each family studied had at least one child in the fifth grade during the study period.
The researchers found that almost 70 percent of the children had been insulted at some point; almost 50 percent reported others had used racial slurs against them, and almost 20 percent reported being threatened with physical violence.
How children react to these incidents depends largely on how they have been prepared to handle them, and the next phase of Simons' research will focus on what the parents teach their children about racism and what helps kids deal with it.
Many of the children studied clearly needed help coping with discrimination. Thirty two percent said they felt sad or depressed. One third reported thoughts of death. Forty one percent said they felt grouchy or irritable, and 42 percent reported trouble sleeping. Irritability and sleeplessness are often symptoms of depression.
Several factors were strong predictors of depression in these children, according to Simons. These include: personally experiencing discrimination, being called a name or being excluded from an activity because of skin color, for examples; living in a community full of racism, whether personally experienced or not; and criminal victimization, either personal or to a family member.
On the other hand, living in a community that had a solid ethnic identity and sense of pride seemed to act as a buffer and lessened the likelihood of depression, Simons adds.
Preparing kids to deal with the biases they're likely to encounter and teaching them strategies to cope would probably also be helpful, according to Simons. He also says it's useful if parents avoid a defeatist attitude and let their kids know that, while they may have to work harder, they can be successful.
William Pollard, dean of the College of Human Services and Health Professions at Syracuse University, agrees.
Children need to be taught not to allow other people to define who they are, he says. They also need to know there are positive role models of color out there, even if they don't encounter them in their daily lives.
Pollard recalls that when he was growing up in the segregated South, his parents were easily able to point to examples of African-American achievement because there were black teachers, school principals, doctors and lawyers all around them. The message he was given growing up, he says, was that he could overcome discrimination.
"We have to enable our children to see that what they may see around them as predominantly white is not the real world. There are corners of the world in which African-Americans are making outstanding contributions," he says.
If kids can't see that there is a way out, he adds, then they will become depressed.
Simons' study was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse. Simons hopes to be able to follow these families until the children reach adulthood in order to assess the long-term consequences of discrimination.
What To Do
Read what kids have to say about discrimination at Scholastic.com.
You could also check out this study from the University of Regina in Canada that found a little knowledge can go a long way in diminishing discrimination.