Racism and Children’s Mental Health: Evidence for Practice

Posted on November 18, 2014 by


The authors of the current ANS feature article titled “Perceived Discrimination and Children’s Mental Health Symptoms,” Cheryl L. Cooke, PhD, MN, RN; Bonnie H. Bowie, PhD, MBA, RN; and Sybil Carr`ere, PhD, present the results of their study the association between perceived discrimination and children’s symptoms of anxiety and depression. The results of their study contributes to evidence that is needed for research, teaching and practice that can intervene to alleviate the harmful effects of racism and discrimination. I am delighted to include here a video they have prepared for the ANS audience, followed by a written message providing more background about their work! I encourage you to download the article while it is featured from the ANS web site, read it and then return here to engage wth us in discussion of the very important issues that their work has addressed.

More from the authors:

Our article on health inequities is based on data from our five-year longitudinal study of families with a child transitioning from middle childhood to adolescence – the Family Health Project. All 3 of us were members of the University of Washington School of Nursing. At the beginning of the Family Health Project in 2000, Cheryl Cooke was a post-doctoral fellow, Bonnie Bowie was a doctoral student, and Sybil Carrère was a research professor. Our goal was to look at family emotional dynamics, and more specifically, parenting practices that were associated with children exhibiting good physical and mental health.   We wanted to learn from “expert” parents what works best in raising happy, healthy children who do well in social and academic worlds. Our premise was that when parents help their children to learn about their emotions and what to do in emotionally overwhelming situations (e.g., bullies at school, grief, anger, stress), that the children are better able to meet the challenges that society presents them. The longitudinal study was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (MH42484). Our work was also supported by subsequent funding from the National Institute for Nursing Research (P30 NR04001; T32 NR07039)), National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P30 HD 02274) and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (P20MD002722), and National Institute on Drug Abuse (T32 DAO7257-14).

Our initial plan was to recruit a sample of families in the Puget Sound area which over-represented ethnic and racial minorities, relative to the demographics of the area. As we began recruiting our sample for the study, we found a high number of Multiracial families volunteering to be a part of the study. This happy coincidence led us to alter our sampling strategy such that we created 3 matched groups of families: Multiracial, African American, and European American families. The families were matched on marital satisfaction and neighborhood crime statistics.

As we interacted with our families in their homes and in our laboratory, we began to see some compelling patterns in the kinds of information parents imparted to their children in order to help their children’s emotional development and ability to navigate the stressors of childhood. We observed that racial and ethnic minority family members discussed some of the discrimination they encountered – both the parents and the children. This lead us to the conclusion that we needed to assess both the parents and the children’s perceptions of discrimination, even if the timing of our anecdotal observations meant we would only be able to measure perceived discrimination in the final time point of the study. We wanted to find a questionnaire that would tap into discrimination that might be experienced by any ethnic or racial group. This proved a challenge because most of the perceived discrimination scales at the time of our study focused on the African American experience. We were fortunate to find the Perceived Ethnic Discrimination questionnaire by Brondolo and her colleagues (2005) that measures perceived discrimination experienced by any racial or ethnic group. We were able to use the questionnaire with the parents and children in our 3rd and final time point of the study. The results of this paper stem from the inclusion of this questionnaire in our research project.

One of the joys of the Family Health Project was the strong collegial bonds and friendship the three of us have developed and maintained over the course of our work on the research. This paper brings together our interests in the impact of discrimination on families – particularly families of color, parenting practices that lead to optimal trajectories of children’s emotional development, and health inequities. We are very excited about what we learned from the analyses presented in this paper – but, as usual, it raises many more questions that we hope to pursue, together, in the future.

Brondolo, E., Kelly, KP, Coakley, V., et. al. The perceived discrimination questionnaire; development and preliminary validation of a community version. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 2005. 35(2): 335-365.