Researcher investigating racism’s effects on health recognized with early career award

Timely research on racism and its effects on mental health and health risk behavior have earned a psychologist at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work a distinguished early career award.

Associate Professor Miguel Ángel Cano received the prize from the National Latinx Psychological Association for a body of work that includes a groundbreaking investigation of how online discrimination and racism impact the mental health of those on the receiving end.

Cano’s most recent study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, examines how exposure to derogatory photos, memes, videos and comments harms Hispanic young adults. He found that men, in particular, reported high levels of depression and anxiety in response to viewing bigoted content, whether directed at them specifically or experienced vicariously on others’ pages.

Cano has since partnered with other researchers to continue and expand on the work with a survey of Hispanic as well as Black individuals.

The research arrives at a time when the United States is reeling from protests in response to racially charged events, among them the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police. Other disturbing episodes include whites’ singling out of Blacks for everyday activities such as bird watching and of Hispanics for speaking Spanish.

Cano notes that the increased recording and widespread viewing of such incidents has a cumulative effect. And not only does mental health suffer, but physical health can go down.

“The key theory is that exposure to discrimination and racism elevates stress,” he explains. “With higher levels of stress, you’re more likely to experience poor mental health or engage in substance use behavior like [drinking] alcohol or smoking. That [activity] definitely has more long-term consequences, like a higher likelihood of developing a cardiovascular disease.” (Other studies have found links between stress response to racism and an increase in inflammation, a condition associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses.)

Despite increasing research over the past three decades that has connected racism to poor health, Cano says not many interventions have been formulated to mitigate the ill effects. He hopes his work translates into tangible, targeted interventions that could be offered through schools and community-based agencies and geared particularly to adolescents and young adults.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of groups in society, exposure to discrimination is the reality,” he says. “There’s no real way to escape it.”

In response, Cano is actively working to identify and develop evidence-based coping strategies to buffer the effects of racism on health. The approach might include a psychologist, social worker or another facilitator discussing with youngsters the reality of racism in society, Cano explains, in essence “to prime them,” from a psychological standpoint, to better cope with future attacks and prevent their internalizing negative messages.