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3 takeaways on race and mental health equity from Gustavus Nobel Conference

A considerable portion of last week’s Nobel Conference was dedicated to exploring the impact of technology and social media on youth mental health.

Nobel Conference speakers Joseph Gone, Brendesha Tynes and Priscilla Liu.
Nobel Conference speakers Joseph Gone, Brendesha Tynes and Priscilla Liu.
Gustavus Adolphus College

Researchers concerned about mental health disparities among young people spoke about the importance of identity, trauma and technology during a gathering at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

A considerable portion of last week’s Nobel Conference was dedicated to exploring the impact of technology and social media on youth mental health. And researchers offered both observations and solutions to racial disparities in alcohol craving in young adults, mental health struggles among Indigenous people, and the connection between online racial discrimination and depression and anxiety symptoms among Black youth.

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Here are three takeaways from the conference: 

1. Re-envisioning an “alterNative” Indigenous mental health framework

One of the speakers, Joseph Gone, discussed the roots of mental health challenges among Indigenous peoples and how to re-envision the health care system in an “alterNative” way to fit the needs of Native Americans. 

“Indigenous mental health is really an interesting endeavor because of the kinds of psychological distress that confront indigenous peoples,” said Gone, a professor of anthropology, global health and social medicine at Harvard University.

Gone added that the most prevalent mental health conditions in Indigenous communities include addiction, trauma and suicide. “Those problems are perhaps best conceived less as mental disorders in the psychiatric sense, and more as post-colonial pathologies that were born of, emerged from and predominated Indian life to the degree they do because of long histories of colonial subjugation,” he said.

Gone’s research has focused on colonial subjugation, which he says is the root of the specific mental health issues that disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples. 

According to CDC data from 2020, among Indigenous youth ages 15-24 in the U.S., suicide is the second highest contributor to death, with around 29% of deaths in that group attributed to suicide. That compares to 23% for white youth in the same age group. 

“It has to do with the idea of the colonial encounter, which conveyed to Native people that your way of life is worthless,” he said. “When that happens, people’s response is one of disorientation and what we might call anomie, a word that in the case of psychology and wellbeing, refers to the fact that you no longer have kind of a compass for who you are, what’s supposed to matter to you, how to have a good life, those kinds of things. This sense of a loss of a compass to guide you in the life you live is what people will point to (as) leading to drinking, depression, worthlessness, suicide, that kind of thing.” 

He highlighted that rehabilitating a proud Indigenous identity can improve mental health outcomes. Part of that is implementing ritual and ceremonial practice into health service settings, he said. 

That has its challenges, as he saw while collaborating with the Urban Indian Health Clinic in Detroit to incorporate traditional healing. Because most urban Indian communities are multitribal, he had to think about which healing practices to pick, as they differ from tribe to tribe. 

A solution was to implement a sweat lodge, an assembly of various religious practices, like smudging, pipe ceremonies, water ceremonies and prayer. 

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2. Involving Black youth in addressing online racial discrimination, mental health  

Another speaker, Brendesha Tynes, shared her research that found connections between online racism and depressive and anxiety symptoms among Black youth. 

Tynes, a professor of education and psychology and the Dean’s Professor of Educational Equity at the University of Southern California, conducted a study of more than 1,000 young people in grades 6-12 and found that 559 were cyberbullied or harassed online. She also found a reciprocal relationship between being victimized and experiencing symptoms of depression.

At the conference, she talked about a study of critical race digital literacy and the connections between negative race-related technology experiences and mental health outcomes, including suicidal ideation, trauma, depressive symptoms, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. 

The study has not been published yet, but the preliminary findings show associations between online racial discrimination and suicide ideation.

Her research also showed that young people have frequent experiences with online racial discrimination and traumatic events online – including images or videos of racial terror in the form of police racial violence. These experiences are associated with depressive and PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and suicide ideation. 

Social media algorithms can further discriminate against Black young people by feeding them more of that harmful content, Tynes said. Her research shows people who discovered online racial discrimination and algorithmic bias on one day would have increased levels of depressive symptoms the next day. Those who experienced online discrimination, traumatic events online and algorithmic bias experienced anxiety symptoms the next day. 

She thinks the manuscript for the research will be out in the spring and wants those findings to be used responsively, in a way that centers Black youth experiences, rather than clinicians immediately trying to implement new strategies. 

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“We really need to center Black youth experiences in any conversation about equity in our design of mental health apps and the mental health care that they have access to. People need a deep understanding of the daily online experiences that Black youth have if we’re even going to begin to advance mental health equity for this group,” she said.

3. Racial and ethnic identity and its impacts on mental health, alcohol cravings

Priscilla Liu, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Texas, presented about mental health disparities across different ethnicities and whether there’s a link between discrimination and alcohol consumption. 

During her talk, she noted that even everyday discrimination, like micro-aggressions,  should not be discounted when thinking about young people’s mental health. 

According to the World Health Organization, adolescents from marginalized racial, ethnic or sexual backgrounds are at greater risk of mental health conditions, in part because of the ways they may internalize or externalize symptoms. 

A significant portion of Liu’s research looks at how alcohol craving interacts with racial discrimination and the experiences of ethnic minorities and marginalized communities. One study explored that using virtual reality, where some participants, all people of color ages 18 to 30 who identify as ethnic minorities, were the victims of various discriminatory experiences. 

“In our particular study, the participants experienced discrimination from the avatar in virtual reality. And these were all everyday kind of incidences of relatively minor experiences of discrimination,” Liu said.

Their stress levels were then monitored. 

“We found that compared to people who experienced interactions that triggered their thinking about daily stressors, daily hassles, such as work-related and school-related stressors, people who are exposed to discrimination reported statistically significantly higher levels of stress,” Liu said. 

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However, the researchers’ hypothesis that people who experienced discrimination in the study would also have higher craving levels for alcohol did not bear out. 

There could be many underlying reasons for that, Liu said, including if the people experiencing stress don’t think of alcohol as a coping mechanism. 

With a better understanding of the general effects of racial discrimination on minority populations, Liu said follow-up research can then pinpoint unique experiences with discrimination and its effects for different groups.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove a quote from Tynes that was missing context.