The Association Between Perceived Discrimination and Mental Health Outcomes of African-American College Students: Understanding the Role of Psycho-Cultural Coping Resources in Inhibiting Stress

Nichols, Tanya, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Williams, Joanna, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Reeve, Ronald, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

The purpose of the present study was to investigate the association between perceived racial discrimination and mental health among first year African-American college students attending a predominantly white institution. Since racial discrimination can result in significant psychological distress and can be emotionally burdensome, the personal benefits of attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) can come with a great psychological cost. Given the documented negative effects that racial discrimination can have on psychological functioning and physical well-being, this research sought to understand how the racial climate of a majority White campus context affects the psychological and physical health of African-Americans and the ways in which they cope with the racial stressors that they encounter in this context. This study assessed whether or not “psycho-cultural” - psychological (i.e. coping, resiliency) and cultural (i.e., racial identity, ethnic identity) resources - factors are better understood as mediators or moderators in the association between campus-based discrimination and mental health. A total of 101 students completed the survey at Time 1 (and 57 completed the post-survey at Time 2), and a total of 10 students participated in the focus groups. Using an explanatory sequential mixed-methods (quantitative and qualitative) design (Creswell, 2014), this research sought to understand the psycho-cultural resources (i.e., coping, resiliency, racial identity, ethnic identity) that students employ to alleviate depressive, anxiety, and somatic symptoms. The study used a regression approach supported by qualitative data to examine whether these psycho-cultural resources moderate and/or mediate the association between college racial discrimination and psychological well-being in African-Americans within a predominantly White context. The quantitative results showed that above and beyond control variables, racial discrimination was not significantly related to Time 2 mental health outcomes (i.e. depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms). When psycho-cultural resources were added to the model, results indicated that neither coping, resiliency, ethnic identity, or racial identity were significant predictors of mental health outcomes. Post-hoc analyses showed that there was a significant association between campus-based discrimination and somatic symptoms at Time 1. There was also a concurrent main effect for resiliency with somatic symptoms although there was no there was no evidence of a moderating effect of resiliency for this association. Additionally, the mediation model was not significant in this relation.
The qualitative data indicated that academic, social, and race-related stressors as the primary areas of distress for first year African-American students attending at PWI. Students utilized a number of effective coping strategies to address the negative psychological and physical impact of these stressors. They developed effective strategies to cope with academic stressors including campus resources, social support, physical activity and self-care, and religions and spirituality for their academic demands. Regarding social stressors, students reportedly benefited for campus involvement and joining organizations. Students coped with racial stressors through humor, resiliency, developing a deeper understanding of racial discrimination, focusing on their academic goals, spirituality and religion, and their parent racial messages. An analysis of the qualitative data regarding race-related stressors and racial discrimination requires a recognition of the diversity within the Black diaspora that comprises this sample. The variability in first-year African-American students’ responses regarding campus climate, race-related stressors, and coping with such racial distress intersected with gender, geographic region/country of origin, socioeconomic status, and bi-/multi-racial backgrounds. Such findings suggests that it is important to understand how intersectionality plays a critical role in African-American students’ adjustment to a PWI in terms of their perceptions of the campus racial climate and experiences of racial discrimination. Recognizing the diversity amongst African-American students and the potentially negative emotional impact of attending a predominantly white institution is necessary in developing holistic interventions that supports their first year transition and their academic and psychological development/well-being.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
African-American college students, racial discrimination, mental health, coping, racial identity
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