The Impact of Discrimination on Mental Health

I recently have been involved in a labor arbitration where a local union of employees at a federal penitentiary successfully challenged the Bureau of Prisons’ discriminatory policy of excluding females from two posts because they might see a male inmate unclothed. The Arbitrator bifurcated the hearing so that the union, having prevailed on the issue of liability, is presenting evidence at a separate hearing on damages, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary, suffered by the women.

At the damages hearing, female correction officers testified about the emotional distress they suffered from the sex discrimination. For many of the women, the impact was profound. They testified that the stress that they already experienced from serving as female correction officers in an all-male penitentiary was significantly increased by the blatant discrimination they encountered, leading a number of women to suffer serious depression and anxiety.

The female correction officers’ testimony about the emotional distress that they suffered is consistent with the medical and social science literature showing that discrimination is a form of chronic psychological and social stress, which has an adverse impact on a person’s physical and mental health. Research demonstrates that being discriminated against adversely affects heart health. Hypertension, which is primarily determined by the “fight or flight” stress response of the nervous system, is often higher among people who experience a greater lifetime burden of discrimination[1]. In addition to causing elevation in physiological stress response, discrimination has been found to reduce the self-soothing side of our nervous system[2], making it harder to recover from stress. Experiencing discrimination increases a person’s likelihood of sleep disturbances[3], and in a person’s likelihood to develop depression, suicidal thoughts[4], anxiety[5], and chronic pain[6].

John A. BeranbaumThis article is intended as a general discussion of these issues only and is not to be considered legal advice or relied upon. For more information, please contact RPJ Attorney John A. Beranbaum who counsels clients on employment law, litigation, arbitration, negotiation, and trial advocacy. Mr. Beranbaum is admitted to practice law in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals from the Second and Third Circuits, U.S. District Court for Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, District of New Jersey, Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the Northern District of Florida.

[1] Brondolo, E., Love, E. E., Pencille, M., Schoenthaler, A., & Ogedegbe, G. (2011). Racism and hypertension: a review of the empirical evidence and implications for clinical practice. American journal of hypertension24(5), 518-529.

[2] Hill, L. K., Hoggard, L. S., Richmond, A. S., Gray, D. L., Williams, D. P., & Thayer, J. F. (2017). Examining the association between perceived discrimination and heart rate variability in African Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 23(1), 5.

[3] Grandner, M. A., Hale, L., Jackson, N., Patel, N. P., Gooneratne, N. S., & Troxel, W. M. (2012). Perceived racial discrimination as an independent predictor of sleep disturbance and daytime fatigue. Behavioral sleep medicine, 10(4), 235-249.

[4] Polanco-Roman, L., & Miranda, R. (2013). Culturally related stress, hopelessness, and vulnerability to depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation in emerging adulthood. Behavior Therapy, 44(1), 75–87.

[5] Soto, J. A., Dawson-Andoh, N. A., & BeLue, R. (2011). The relationship between perceived discrimination and generalized anxiety disorder among African Americans, Afro Caribbeans, and non-Hispanic Whites. Journal of anxiety disorders, 25(2), 258-265.

[6] Brown , T. T., Partanen, J., Chuong, L., Villaverde, V., Griffin, A. C., Mendelson, A., Discrimination Hurts: The effect of discrimination on the development of chronic pain, et al, 204 Journal of Social Science & Medicine, May 2018, (estimating that 4.1 million people in the U.S., aged 40 and older, experience chronic pain caused by increased psychological distress due to perceived discrimination).