Teens who are worried that discrimination is on the rise show increased behavioral problems, including substance abuse and depression, according to a study released this week by the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
The study focused on Los Angeles-area teens from communities of color or families with limited education, and found that many were concerned that discrimination is a growing problem in society. The more worried the teens were, the worse their substance use, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms became, according to the researchers, who said that political and social schisms in the headlines are not lost on young people.
“Teens who stand to suffer most from prejudice in society are stressed out about the social climate, and our study found that as their concern grew, so too did their behavioral problems,” said Adam Leventhal, the study’s lead author. “This proved true even for the teens who say they rarely experience discrimination in their own community, suggesting that what’s happening in society at large weighs on them. The impact of polarizing social policies on teens’ mental health needs to be addressed.”
The study found that at the start of the study in 2016, 29.7 percent of teens were very or extremely worried about societal discrimination, which increased to 34.7 percent one year later, especially for minority students.
Significant associations between increased level of concern about discrimination and six different adverse behavioral outcomes were also found, with the associations in minorities or socioeconomically disadvantaged teens stronger in some cases.
One example cited was that teens with less educated parents who were unconcerned about societal discrimination in 2016, but became extremely concerned by 2017, were using marijuana or drinking alcohol at three times the rate of teens whose concern was unchanged during the study.
“Concern, worry and stress attributed to increasing societal discrimination during the recent socio-politically charged period was common and associated with adverse behavioral outcomes in this adolescent cohort,” Leventhal said.
The researchers noted that the Trump administration policies to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact travel bans targeting several foreign countries drew headlines during the study period.
Other events making headlines that could be impacting teens include police violence on minorities, hate crimes against Muslims and backlash to same-sex marriage, according to the researchers. They stressed that they did not independently verify the subjects’ self-reported behaviors or obtain mental health diagnoses, and that their study stops short of establishing causal links, instead focusing on the associations between attitudes and behavioral outcomes.
The study was funded by a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.