THE LEVEL – The unseen, unheard, ‘un-hired’, unwelcome and, too often times, underprivileged among us may now have an additional moniker —— the anxious.
That’s the findings of a study conducted by a multidisciplinary team of health researchers led by Tufts University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which found that exposure to discrimination plays a significant role in the risk of developing anxiety and related disorders.
This is a first, according to the researchers who were alarmed to discover that even after controlling for genetic risks for anxiety, depression and neuroticism, individuals who reported more discriminatory experiences also exhibited higher anxiety levels and related disorders.
“The study results demonstrate that discriminatory experiences can potentially cause stress and mental health problems regardless of the genetic constitution of the individual,” says Adolfo G. Cuevas, an assistant professor of community health and director of the Psychosocial Determinants of Health Lab at Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences, who is first author of the study. “From regular slights in public spaces to more significant incidents, such as being passed over for a promotion or a loan, these experiences can take a toll on your mental health.”
Although researchers have long recognized discrimination as an established risk factor in the development, the study is the first to directly link discrimination to anxiety disorders.
When we minimize discrimination and related exposure to discriminatory activities, we help to improve the public’s overall mental health, according to the senior author of the study, Robert F. Krueger, a McKnight University professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota.
Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or phobias, are the most common mental illness, affecting over 40 million people in the United States every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Study co-author David R. Williams hopes the study will help spark important new dialogue between political leaders, public health officials and community leaders to stem discrimination.
The related costs are astronomical, according to Williams, the Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a professor in the department of African and African American Studies at Harvard.
People with anxiety disorders miss more work, are more likely to be injured on the job or disabled, and face significantly higher risk for chronic health conditions, including heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
Editor’s Note: The study authors included researchers from Stony Brook University, University of Minnesota, in addition to Harvard’s School of Public Health and Tufts. Read the full study report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.