Can Mindfulness Help People Cope with Discrimination?

By Emily Nauman | February 24, 2014 | 0 comments

A new study asks if mindfulness can help people who experience depression as a result of prejudice.

Discrimination is often a painful and humiliating experience. Indeed, past research demonstrates that people who experience prejudice are also likely to be depressed. While the responsibility for discrimination lies with the perpetrator, how might targets of discrimination see to their own mental health?

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. Dan Archer

One strategy that researchers are considering is mindfulness—the practice of bringing non-judgmental awareness to each moment.

A growing body of research points to the benefits of mindfulness for a number of mental stressors. Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wondered if mindfulness could also be helpful for people who experience depression as a result of prejudice.

Adults in North Carolina filled out surveys, reporting on their experiences with discrimination and on their level of mindfulness. They also reported how often they experienced positive emotions, and whether or not they had symptoms of depression.

The results, published in Personality and Individual Differences, confirmed the researchers’ prediction: adults who reported experiencing discrimination had fewer symptoms of depression if they had high levels of mindfulness.

Why might mindfulness mitigate depressive symptoms for targets of discrimination? Past research has shown that mindfulness is associated with the ability to regulate emotions; being mindfully aware of emotions enables people to notice emotions without pushing them away or getting caught up in them.

Mindfulness is also thought to help people separate experiences from their sense of self-worth, and make more objective observations about experiences. This would be helpful for persons experiencing discrimination because they might be in a better position to avoid plunges in self-esteem and emotion that might arise from prejudice. Objective observations about situations could also potentially help someone in a compromising situation identify an appropriate response. 

Though it’s tempting to conclude that mindfulness reduces depression for targets of discrimination, this study shows only that mindfulness and reduced depression are correlated; more research is needed to investigate if a mindfulness intervention directly causes reduced depression.

In the paper, the authors also note that this research is not intended to place the burden of prejudice on those that suffer from it. They write, “Ideally, structural and cultural changes would reduce discriminatory practices at the societal level. But, until such changes take place, we hope this research will highlight potential strategies to mitigate the negative toll discriminatory experiences have on individual targets”.

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About The Author

Emily Nauman is a GGSC research assistant. She completed her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College with a double major in Psychology and French, and has previously worked as a research assistant in Oberlin’s Psycholinguistics lab and Boston University’s Eating Disorders Program.


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