Oppressed Minds: the Psychological Effects of Discrimination

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” – Steve Biko

It is beyond question that 2020 was a transformational year in various aspects, one of which was the way that the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the extensive inequalities and hateful discriminations that exist around the world. Shocking statistics have surfaced, such as the fact that across Europe and the USA, Black people are significantly more likely to be admitted to psychiatric institutions and are often overmedicated (Amala, 2012), and that women are two times more likely than men to be diagnosed with psychological disorders such as depression (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2019). I quickly began to question why this happens and why countless studies have found a positive correlation between oppression-related stress and the number of psychopathological symptoms exhibited by an individual (e.g. Moane 2017, Klonoff et al. 2000, Jackson et al. 1996, Swim et al. 2001).

One of the main reasons I found for why oppression causes such significant psychological deterioration is the fact that it increases stress levels for two main reasons. Firstly, oppressed groups are often put into dangerous situations that can lead to battering or sexual assault, which are undoubtedly stressful (Klonoff et al., 2000). Next, Relative Deprivation Theory states that in contexts of growing inequality, constant disparities between social goods cause the less powerful groups to feel a sense of deprivation, which leads to increased stress (Corning, 2002). When the brain is under stress, it focuses more of its activity on areas that are in charge of ensuring survival (i.e. the amygdala) and less on areas such as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional stabilization. Thus, chronic stress can lead to a consistent lack of activity in the prefrontal cortex (Protect your brain from stress, 2018), and decrease one’s ability to filter out the negative emotions generated by the overactive amygdala, which increases depressive symptoms (Dubuc, 2002).

A study that I found extremely powerful was conducted by Klonoff and colleagues in 2000.  Their goal was to establish a causal relationship between sexist stressors and psychiatric symptoms by comparing women who had never experienced sexism to men, hypothesizing that there should be no difference in the frequency of symptoms between those two groups. Yet, the experimenters were unable to find a single woman who had never experienced sexist discrimination in a collective sample of over 1200 women. Their analysis was then limited to a comparison between women who had rarely experienced sexism and men, which did end up demonstrating the hypothesized effect (Klonoff et al., 2000). The most interesting part of this study, in my opinion, is the fact that it demonstrated the extent to which sexism is present in the daily life of virtually all women, which illustrates why they are so much more likely to have debilitating mental illnesses.

Lastly, constant disapproval for being who you are by a large group of people can decrease self-esteem (Amala, 2012), a powerful moderator for the impact of stress on depression according to Brown and Harris’s psychosocial model of depression (Corning, 2002).  It has been shown that a decrease in personal and collective self-esteem can lead to an increase in depressive symptoms in relation to oppressive events (Corning, 2002). Collective self-esteem is particularly interesting and has been shown to be a protective factor against depression related to racist events, due to the fact that it can create a sense of belonging and enable social support that in turn decreases the pain caused by ostracism (Brondolo et al., 2009). This phenomenon was brought up in an interesting conversation I had with Akira O’Connor, a psychology professor at the University of St. Andrews who has experienced racial discrimination throughout his life. He mentioned that due to being biracial and not being able to strongly identify with either part of his heritage, he took comfort instead in a football club which he felt had an international fanbase that he could relate to. This illustrates the importance of collective self-esteem; that even when one cannot find it in their ethnic group they often seek it elsewhere in sub-conscious efforts to minimize the effects of oppression.

Although those are very interesting findings, psychology is imperfect and during my research I realized that there was a lack of focus on the societal aspects of oppression in disconnect with a specific individual’s mental health. I then asked Professor O’Connor whether, in his opinion, psychology as a whole has properly addressed the issue of oppression. He demonstrated disappointment in the field, saying that psychologists often believe that because they are reporting something objective, their measures display the whole truth and are fully unbiased. Yet, oftentimes they overlook the systemic inequalities that dictate who partakes in research, both as participants and as experimenters. This idea was matched in a study by Gillborn and others, which explained that despite their seeming objectiveness, numbers and algorithms can be racist, as they are created and interpreted by human beings that are prone to biased points of view (Gillborn et al., 2018). Thus, although I have now gathered a deep understanding of the effects of oppression on an individual, psychology as a whole has a long way to go in addressing all aspects of discrimination and ensuring that the data collected doesn’t add to overarching societal prejudices.

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