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Exploring how discrimination puts teen health at risk

Exploring how discrimination puts teen health at risk

Picture of Deidre McPhillips
Exploring how discrimination puts teen health at risk
(Photo: StateFarm/Flickr)

Discrimination and segregation in America are nothing new. Measuring their effects on health, however, is. And if recent, localized studies are any indication of broader national trends, the situation is quite dire. 

Feelings of increased discrimination are linked to higher rates of substance abuse and depression among high school students in Los Angeles, according to a recent study. Risks of resultant stress and behavioral health problems are particularly high for minority students. While underage drinking rates are declining and adolescent smoking rates are hitting record lows, negative social interactions threaten the progress that has been made. 

The effects of this trend towards polarization don’t stop there. My analysis of U.S. News Healthiest Communities data finds that there is a strong correlation between segregation in a community and cost-burdened households, as well as access to school and jobs, continuing education and more in those communities.

Immigration and race relations continue to be key topics of national debate, thrusting young generations into a tumultuous environment for self-discovery and identity. My reporting for the 2018 Data Fellowship will focus on areas of the country that are experiencing significant demographic shifts, using local studies and reporting to understand national trends on why feelings of discrimination may be on the rise and how that affects the health of those being discriminated against.

Finding data that measure segregation and discrimination appropriately will be key for this project. The Theil Index compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau is one option; however, this data set does not take into account how diverse a community is to begin with. For example, a community that is 95 percent white may perform well in relative segregation, even if the Hispanic portion of the community is heavily disadvantaged, simply because the impact of disparity for that small of a population is not considered significant. Accounting for these nuances is important.

Geography is more important than genetics when it comes to health outcomes, or at least equally so. There is an overwhelming amount of research to support it. Children and adolescents are perhaps most influenced by the environments in which they live, study and play. Understanding and working toward social acceptance is one way to make those environments healthy, both in the short- and long-term.


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