Mental health and the risks for mental illness affect everyone differently, and this is just as true when it comes to demographics. Everyone has their own experiences and own stories when it comes to how mental health impacts them directly, but your identity can also play a role in how you’re affected.
We’ve talked before about how mental health affects and is perceived in the African-American community. There has also been an increased focus on how mental illness affects African-Americans differently and more severely and how it needs to be treated appropriately as such: the suicide rate in African-American children is significantly higher than white children, for example, and African-American adolescents express their depressive symptoms differently, which requires different approaches when developing treatment.
One of the contributors to African-American mental health, especially in adolescents, is stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a theory developed by psychologist Claude Steele, and says that minority groups (women and African Americans specifically) being told or made aware of the negative stereotypes associated with them can cause self-doubt and affect their abilities in the related field.
This includes school and academic performance. For example, if an African-American adolescent is told that an exam will measure their intellectual ability, they are likely to do more poorly than if they’re told that the test has no impact. By telling them that it will measure their intellectual ability, they may start thinking about stereotypes such as being less intelligent than white people, and they may think that they will inevitably make that stereotype to be true. Researchers have looked into how stereotype threat can be a factor in the achievement gap between African-American and white students too.
Once the stereotype threat is present, it can affect academic performance regardless of the individual’s personal ability or skill in that subject. Simply being made aware of the negative stereotypes associated with them makes people feel that they are going to end up like that no matter what, and that disrupts their thinking and how they view themselves, no matter how aware they are of it or not.
Stereotype threat not only negatively affects how people see themselves, but it can also increase symptoms of mental illness. Stereotyping is a way to discriminate others, and those who feel like they’re being discriminated against are more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms. Anxiety can also increase, because of the person feeling like they are inevitably going to meet these negative stereotypes and have to be a certain way. Anxiety can not only negatively impact academic performance as a result, but African-American students may also experience anxiety and depressive symptoms because of low scores and the effects that result from them.
There have been some efforts to help reduce stereotype threat. One of them is the opposite of stereotype threat: stereotype boost. By exposing people to the positive stereotypes associated with them, their performance will improve. One way of doing that is through the media, especially those centered to kids and youths, so that they can be exposed to more positive representation. Ultimately, what’s important to remember is that stereotypes and how people see others who aren’t like them can make a big impact on those who are being discriminated or judged, which can have a further effect not just on the things that may be important on them, but on their mental health too.
How do you think teachers, students, and others in the school can help combat stereotype threat? Have you ever experienced stereotype threat?