Perceiving racism is related to sleep difficulties and depression in Hispanic immigrants, according to a new study by a Brigham Young University researcher in the midst of a multi-year project to study why Mexicans collectively experience higher blood pressure and incidents of heart disease after immigrating to the United States.
Published in the new issue of "Ethnicity and Disease," the paper expounds on previous work by establishing sleep problems as a link between racism and depression.
"We found that perceived racism impacts the quality of their sleep and that disturbed sleep is related to depression," explained lead author Patrick Steffen, assistant professor of clinical psychology. "Individuals who have experienced racism could be thinking about what happened the previous day, feeling stressed about their ability to succeed when being judged by something other than merit -- skin tone or a different way of speaking. Sleep is the pathway through which racism affects depression."
Steffen explores connections between the mind and body and is particularly interested in how stress from various causes can affect physical health. He authored a 2003 study that showed perceived racism is related to sustained increased blood pressure.
Now he is halfway through a $260,000, 4-year study funded by the American Heart Association seeking causes of higher blood pressure and increased rates of heart disease in Mexican immigrants, who generally experience low blood pressure and low rates of heart disease in their native country. Changes in diet and physical activity once they immigrate undoubtedly play a role, and Steffen is exploring those angles as well as stressors such as lack of social support, job anxieties and the factors he focused on in the new study, racism, sleep and depression.
Steffen, who learned Spanish as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Spain, has counseled Spanish-speaking immigrants in Utah dealing with stress and depression. He says recent immigrants don't seem to feel much racism, possibly because they don't understand English yet. Their stress is more related to living in a new culture. Latinos who have lived in the United States for several years and feel more integrated in society and become more aware of how other people are treating them seem to experience more racism, he said.
He and coauthor Matthew Bowden, a BYU graduate student, administered validated clinical mental health evaluations to 168 Hispanic immigrants who had been in the United States for an average of five years. They ran statistical tests on the answers to questions about racism, sleep quality and depression, and considered the possibility that the three factors interacted in various combinations.
"We've looked at it several ways," Steffen said. "Statistically, the stronger case was for sleep being the link between racism and depression."
Knowing that quality of sleep is tied to physical effects like blood pressure and the immune system, Steffen hopes his new study will encourage further research into the way stressors such as racism can affect sleep and, consequently, health.
As for advice for Hispanics who are enduring racism, or anyone struggling with stress for that matter, Steffen returns to his counseling roots.
"Part of dealing with stress is first realizing that you have it and identifying where it's coming from. Seek help from a counselor," he said. "Some immigrants may not even realize they're experiencing stress because of their cultural change. Once you know what's causing it, you can deal with it more effectively."