Ethnicity, Gender, Social Class, and Rates of Mental Illness

The Impact of Ethnicity: Stress Effects Researchers have uncovered few sig- nificant ethnic differences in rates of schizophrenia or other major mental illnesses. However, for still unexplained reasons, African Americans seem less likely than do whites to develop anxiety or mood disorders. Nevertheless, African Americans are more likely—especially if they are poor—to report psychological distress, which overlaps with but is not the same as diagnosable mental illness. Researchers theorize that psychological distress among African Americans results from the chronic daily stresses of living with racism. This would explain why, for example, wealthier African Americans—who can use their income to shield themselves somewhat from the effects of racism—experience less stress than do lower income African Americans.

Little recent research is available on psychological distress among other U.S. minority groups. However, Hispanic Americans are less likely than white Amer- icans to develop anxiety disorders, mood disorders, or substance abuse problems. Importantly, the rate of mental disorders among new immi- grants is significantly lower than that of U.S.-born Mexican Americans, but those rates converge over time. Researchers hypothesize that Mexican culture’s strong emphasis on extended families protects immigrants from mental illness by offering social support and thus reducing chronic stress among persons who are single, childless, less educated, or employed in low-prestige jobs. As Mexicans integrate into American culture, they lose these protections.

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The Impact of Gender: Socialization Effects The impact of gender on men- tal illness is at least as complex as the impact of ethnicity. Most mental illnesses are equally common among men and women. However, men have higher rates of schizophrenia, substance abuse, and impulse control disorders (such as compulsive gambling or chronic violence), whereas women have higher rates of anxiety disor- ders and of mood disorders (such as depression).

These differences in mental illness parallel differences in gender roles. Consistently, men display higher rates of disorders linked to violence. As a result, some researchers hypothesize that these forms of mental illness occur when men become “over-socialized” to their gender roles. For example, a young man who fails to plan ahead, shows “reckless disregard” for safety, and gets into fights often, and who before the age of 15 often bullied others, got into fights, or skipped school, would meet the criteria for diagnosis with “antisocial personality disorder.” Yet these behaviors more or less parallel expectations within lower-class communities for how young men should act. Within these commu- nities, men who meet these expectations are typically considered dangerous, but not mentally ill, because their behavior is comprehensible. Although they might be labeled criminal, they are unlikely to be labeled mentally ill unless they somehow come to the attention of doctors from outside their communities.

Similarly, many sociologists hypothesize that depression results when tradi- tional female roles—or others’ expectations about the roles women should and should not play—cause chronic stress by reducing women’s control over their lives and exposing them to discrimination and prejudice. This lack of control is multiplied by broader gendered inequality such as the lack of quality child care or equal pay for working women. Research has found that rates of depression are considerably higher among nonworking women and married mothers—the two groups that typically have the least control over their lives. Similarly, depression is especially common among men who have less power than their wives, have little control over their work, or lose their jobs.


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