Ethnic Minority-Majority Status and Mental Health: The Mediating Role of Perceived Discrimination

By Cokley, Kevin; Hall-Clark, Brittany et al. | Journal of Mental Health Counseling, July 2011 | Go to article overview
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Ethnic Minority-Majority Status and Mental Health: The Mediating Role of Perceived Discrimination

Cokley, Kevin, Hall-Clark, Brittany, Hicks, Dana, Journal of Mental Health Counseling

This study examines the role of perceived discrimination as a mediator of the relationship between ethnic minority-majority status and mental health in a sample of college students, of whom 246 were members of an ethnic minority (African American, Latino American, or Asian American) and 167 were European Americans. Ethnic minority students were significantly higher in perceived discrimination and significantly lower in mental health. African Americans were most likely to perceive racial discrimination, followed by Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans. Asian Americans reported the poorest mental health. Results of mediational analyses by ethnic status (minorities and majority) and across ethnic group pairings (Americans and European Americans, Latino Americans and European Americans, Asian Americans and European Americans) confirmed in every instance that perceived discrimination accounts for a modest part of the relationship between ethnic minority-majority status and mental health. We address the implications for mental health practice on college campuses.


It is well documented that the differential experiences of ethnic minorities lead to differential life outcomes. Minorities are disproportionately likely to have worse jobs and lower incomes, live in less desirable areas, and experience slights and indignities (e.g., racial micro-aggressions) than those in the European American majority (Marger, 2008; Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Torino, 2007; Sue, Capodilupo, & Holder, 2008). Ethnic minority students often attend substandard schools, receive poorer instruction, and are exposed to more violence (Massey, 2006). On predominantly White college campuses minority students report more negative experiences (e.g., faculty racism, racial conflict, racial harassment) than majority students (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000; Rankin & Reason, 2000). Given these negative experiences, the cumulative effects of life stressors experienced by minorities might be expected to undermine their mental health (Smith, 1985). Perceived discrimination has been consistently linked to mental and physical health outcomes (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009; Williams, Yu, Jackson, & Anderson, 1997). However, while researchers seek the pathways linking perceived discrimination to health outcomes, most research on perceived discrimination either uses homogenous ethnic/racial samples or samples that compare two ethnic/racial groups. Few studies have compared multiple ethnic or racial groups, and virtually none has explicitly examined perceived discrimination as a mediating mechanism that links ethnic minority-majority status to mental health outcomes for multiple ethnic groups. Yet history shows that discrimination varies in type, frequency, intensity, and duration depending on the ethnic group examined (Takaki, 1993). The purpose of this study is to address this research gap by examining the role of perceived discrimination in differences in self-reported mental health in an ethnically diverse sample.


Several theories offer explanations of why the mental health of ethnic and racial minorities may be poorer. Critical race theory is one of the more provocative theories offered (Brown, 2003). This theory suggests that racial stratification can cause mental health problems because stressful circumstances exacerbate emotional distress (Brown, 2003). Brown argues that standard definitions of mental health do not account for racial stratification and thus may not be nuanced enough to capture mental health in non-White samples. Examples of mental health problems caused by racial stratification are nihilistic tendencies, anti-self issues, and expression of suppressed anger. Eliminating racial stratification should therefore eliminate these mental health problems (Brown, 2003).

A related theory is social stress theory (Aneshensel, 1992), which encompasses several perspectives that demonstrate how different socio-environmental conditions evoke stress.

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Ethnic Minority-Majority Status and Mental Health: The Mediating Role of Perceived Discrimination


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