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Discrimination Impacts Health and Substance Abuse within Families

July 16, 2019

virginia huynhA new study by California State University, Northridge child and adolescent development professor Virginia Huynh suggests that the impact from an individual’s experiences of discrimination can spill over into their family life, including depression among teenagers and increased marijuana use by parents.

The study, titled “Discrimination and health: A dyadic approach,” is one of the first of its kind to include Asian and Latin American families. It was recently published in the Journal of Health Psychology.

“We followed teenagers and one of their parents — usually it was the mom — for five years and asked about their discrimination experiences, substance use and health,” Huynh said, noting that the substance use researchers were measuring were marijuana and alcohol.

“The results suggest that individuals’ experiences of discrimination can spill over to some aspects of the family context, depending on who is experiencing the discrimination — the parent or the adolescent,” she said. “If the parent experienced the discrimination, then the adolescent reported an increase in depression. If the adolescent reported the discrimination, it can spill over into the parent’s marijuana use.”

Huynh said the study invites further research into how discrimination impacts children and their families. It also “suggests that families, rather than just individuals, may require resources to help them effectively cope with discrimination,” she said.

Huynh in conducted the study with psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Michael R. Irwin, psychology professor Andrew J. Fuligni, epidemiology and medicine professor Theresa Seeman, and researchers Danny Rahal and Heather McCreath, all of the University of California, Los Angeles, and psychology professor Evelyn Mercado of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Huynh noted that there is little research on how experiencing discrimination impacts adolescents and their families. What research does exist, she said, tends to focus on African American families, and on the effect of parents’ discrimination experiences on their children.

“Yet, there is likely a dyadic influence such that youths’ experiences of discrimination may spill over to influence parents’ health,” Huynh said. “Children are an important part of a parent’s own social context, and parents’ concern about how their children are mistreated may have consequences for the parents’ well-being.”

The researchers focused on late adolescence and the transition to adulthood, in part because this developmental period in a person’s life is marked by increased stress and risky behaviors. They zeroed in on three key questions: To what extent does discrimination change over time for adolescents and their parents? Is discrimination related to mental health, physical health and substance use? And does discrimination spillover to affect the health of family members?

A total of 350 individuals, including 316 Southern California high schoolers and their families, took part in the study. The participants identified as Latin, Asian or European American.

Huynh noted that the study took place over the course of the five years before the 2016 presidential election, and before use of marijuana became legal in the state of California.

“I would be curious to see what the data would show today,” she said.