The impact of prejudice and racial bias on health shouldn’t be underestimated, a new study affirms. 

Researchers looked at the relationship between discrimination and suicide ideation, or suicidal thoughts, among older Chinese-Americans. The results, published earlier this month in the The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, showed that those who reported experiencing prejudicial treatment or racial bias were twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts as those who didn’t.

The findings show that the effects of discrimination shouldn’t be taken lightly, Lydia Li, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and a co-author of the study, told HuffPost.

“It’s a serious matter. It’s not something you can just forget ― that you can just brush off. It’s lingering. It cuts into peoples’ thoughts about their place on this planet,” Li told HuffPost. “[Race] might be a social construct, but discrimination really does affect peoples’ lives.”

[Race] might be a social construct, but discrimination really does affect peoples’ lives.
Lydia Li, University of Michigan School of Social Work

The study examined more than 3,000 Chinese-American seniors (ages 60 and older) in the greater Chicago area and found that more than 4 percent had experienced suicidal thoughts within a 30-day period.

Those who reported facing discrimination were significantly more likely to do so.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of suicide ideation for the general older U.S. adult population is under 3 percent over a yearlong period ― a much longer period than in the new study.

The elders in the recent study said they most often suffered prejudicial treatment in public spaces and on the street, Li explained. Many also mentioned they experienced discrimination at work. 

Li speculates that difficult immigrant experiences coupled with certain values in Chinese culture could potentially account for the higher rates of suicidal thoughts among Chinese-American elders who have faced discrimination. Many are immigrants and don’t have the support networks they’re typically used to in their home countries, she explained. When encountering bigotry or intolerance, they may feel alienated and start to second-guess whether moving to the United States was the right choice for them. 

“This experience with discrimination can make people think, ‘Maybe I just don’t belong here.’” she said. “There’s a sense of that they’re not welcome here.”

This experience with discrimination can make people think, ‘Maybe I just don’t belong here.’
Lydia Li, University of Michigan School of Social Work

And because older immigrants may not have had to grapple with discrimination in China, processing these hurtful experiences may be particularly difficult for them. 

“It’s not something they’ve been trained to deal with,” Li said. “They didn’t have this experience in the first half of their lives. They didn’t have to cope with that.”

Li added that the concept of “losing face” or bringing shame to families and loved ones can also make it more difficult to deal with discrimination. When Chinese-American seniors experience a racially charged event, like being told to go back to their country, it’s possible they could internalize the bigotry, Li said. They could question whether they did anything wrong and could even end up blaming themselves for the incident. 

What’s more, when Chinese-American elders find themselves distressed by these experiences, they often won’t seek out mental health help, Li said, which could ultimately contribute to the occurrence of suicidal thoughts. She explained that the seniors may avoid treatment or solutions due to pride, or simply because the proper language resources don’t exist for them. Many others just don’t know what kinds of services exist or where to go for help. And without getting the assistance they need, suicide may start to feel like a viable alternative for them, Li said. 

Li also noted that Chinese studies also showed higher rates of suicide ideation among seniors compared to studies of seniors in the U.S. It’s possible that suicide may be relatively permissible in Chinese culture and therefore contribute to the higher rates of suicidal thoughts in Chinese-American seniors. 

She also notes that rates of suicide ideation among older Chinese-Americans could look different in rural regions, since participants in this study all lived in the Chicago area. She also mentioned that the discrepancy in the rate of suicidal ideation in Chinese-American seniors versus that of the general U.S. adult population could be partially due to difference in methodology.

However, the study’s results are still startling, Li said, and shouldn’t be discounted. They point to a serious need to recognize the harmful consequences of bigotry and prejudice. To start, Li feels that the public needs to gain awareness about the very real health effects of discriminatory behavior. And ultimately, advancing civil rights could actually be a form of suicide prevention.

People who have suffered prejudicial treatment and racial bias must be empowered to properly cope with these situations, Li added. She suggested helping new immigrants in particular by stressing that they aren’t alone and that these hateful instances aren’t their fault. 

“People aren’t being oversensitive,” she said. “This is a real experience.”  

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