Racial discrimination led to dramatic spikes in depressive symptoms, suicidality during COVID-19

Story at a glance

  • Although previous research has documented the toll of racially motivated discrimination on individuals’ mental health, new data highlight its effect during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Those who experienced discrimination more than once a week had a 17-fold increased risk in depressive symptoms and 10-fold increased risk of suicidality.

  • Researchers hope the findings will spur clinicians to better incorporate any discrimination patients face into care provided. 

In the past, discrimination has been tied to increased levels of stress and poorer health. 

New reseach looking at data collected in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic show that between May and July of 2020, everyday discrimination experienced by racial and ethnic minority groups was associated with a 17-fold increased risk of moderate or severe depressive symptoms and 10-fold increased risk of suicidal ideation. These individuals experienced discrimination more than once per week. 

Findings, based on participants in the All of Us research program, were published in JAMA Psychiatry.

As individuals experienced more discrimination, their risks of poor mental health outcomes  increased, while associations were greatest among individuals who self-identified as Hispanic/Latino or Asian. Outcomes were also exacerbated when the main reason behind  discrimination was related to race, ancestry or national origins.

Researchers expressed surprise at the magnitude of the effects documented in the data. 

“At high levels of everyday discrimination, the association with moderate to severe depressive symptoms was similar to the effect of having a pre-pandemic mood disorder diagnosis, which is pretty dramatic,” said co-author Jordan Smoller of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry in a press release. 

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Higher rates of unemployment, food and housing insecurity, lower access to health care, and racially motivated violence seen throughout the pandemic all likely contributed to added stress for racial minority groups who already routinely experience structural racism.

A total of 62,651 individuals were included in the cohort study, making it the largest and most diverse study to date on mental health effects of discrimination experienced throughout the pandemic, to the authors’ knowledge. 

“By demonstrating the complex and dynamic relationship between discrimination and adverse mental health outcomes in a large and diverse sample of the United States, this study provides empirical evidence regarding the adverse mental health consequences of discrimination based on race, ancestry, or national origins during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among individuals self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino or non-Hispanic Asian,” they wrote. 

In the study, discrimination was defined as being treated with less courtesy and respect than others, such as receiving poorer service at restaurants, and being harassed or called names. 

Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with an increase in verbal and physical attacks on individuals of Asian and Pacific Island descent, while the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) found between 2019 and 2020, there was a 77 percent increase in hate crimes against Asian individuals.

The authors called for increased awareness of the detrimental effects discrimiatnion and racism can have on individuals’ mental health. 

“Inequities are not inevitable,” said Smoller, “but for changes to occur, we must work harder to understand and address the kinds of discrimination that some communities experience and the toll it can take on their health and everyday lives.”