Depression Is Serious Effect of Racism on Children and Youth

Two school girls (11-12) whispering and laughing at another girl (12-13), focus on front girl
Chris Whitehead / Getty Images

It’s often said that children don’t see race, but that’s far from true; they not only see race but also feel the effects of racism, which can manifest as depression. Even pre-schoolers notice racial differences between groups, and as children age, they tend to separate themselves into race-based cliques, making some students feel alienated.

More problems arise when children use racial stereotypes to bully their classmates. Being ridiculed, ignored or slighted because of race has a detrimental effect on children. Studies show that encountering racial bigotry can lead children to suffer from depression and behavioral problems. Racism can even lead teens and young adults to drop out of school. Sadly, the racial discrimination children experience doesn’t exclusively involve their peers, as adults are perpetrators too. The good news is that children with strong support systems can overcome the challenges racial bigotry presents.

Racism, Depression, and Black and Latino Youths

A 2010 study of 277 children of color presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Vancouver revealed a strong link between racial discrimination and depression. Roughly two-thirds of the study subjects were black or Latino, while another 19 percent were multiracial. Study lead Lee M. Pachter asked the youths if they’d been discriminated against in 23 different ways, including being racially profiled while shopping or called offensive names. Eighty-eight percent of the kids said they had indeed experienced racial discrimination.

Pachter and his team of researchers also surveyed the children about their mental health. They found that racism and depression go hand in hand. “Not only do most minority children experience discrimination, but they experience it in multiple contexts: in schools, in the community, with adults and with peers,” Pachter said. “It’s kind of like the elephant in the corner of the room. It’s there, but nobody really talks about it. And it may have significant mental and physical health consequences in these children’s lives.”

Overcoming Bigotry and Depression

The results of a five-year study conducted by researchers in California, Iowa, and Georgia found that racism can lead to depression and behavioral problems. In 2006, the study of more than 700 black youth appeared in the publication of Child Development. The researchers determined that children who’d endured name-calling, race-based insults, and stereotyping were more likely to report trouble sleeping, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating, according to ABC News. Black boys victimized by racism were also more likely to get into fights or shoplift.

The silver lining, however, is that children with supportive parents, friends, and teachers weathered the challenges of racism much better than their peers lacking such support networks. “The outlook was brighter, though, for children whose homes, friends, and schools protected them from discrimination’s negative influences,” said Gene Brody, the study’s lead researcher, in a press release. “Children, whose parents stayed involved in their lives, kept track of their whereabouts, treated them with warm affection, and communicated clearly with them, were less likely to develop problems due to their experiences with discrimination.”

Racism as a Source of Depression in Young Adults

Teenagers and young adults are not immune to the effects of racism. According to the University of California, Santa Cruz, college students who experience racism might feel like outsiders on campus or pressure to prove the stereotypes about their racial group wrong. They might also suspect that they’re being treated differently because of race and consider dropping out of school or transferring to another school to alleviate their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

With one university after another making headlines in recent years when students organize parties with racially offensive themes, it’s likely that today’s students of color feel even more vulnerable on campus than their predecessors did. Hate crimes, racist graffiti, and small numbers of minority groups in the student body may make a young adult feel completely alienated in academia.

UCSC asserts that it’s important for students of color to practice good self-care to prevent racism from sending them into a depression. “It may sometimes be hard to resist using unhealthy ways to cope, such as using drugs and alcohol excessively or isolating oneself from the broader community,” according to UCSC. “Taking good care of your physical, mental, and spiritual health will leave you better equipped to cope with the stress of bias, and make empowered choices for yourself.”