While the link between interpersonal discrimination and chronic health problems is well recognized, researchers still need to understand how discrimination drives health inequities and how to mitigate it.
Nebraska psychologist Arthur “Trey” Andrews offers a fresh perspective. Rather than studying how episodes of discrimination affect people individually – the traditional approach – he’s studying how discrimination-related stress ripples across a social network, impacting its collective health.
But because social networks are also protective against stress, Andrews is working to pinpoint how they can confer health resilience – without causing spillover stress. To find out, he’s studying about 400 Hispanic people.
“We’re really getting at this notion about how discrimination stress, and really stress in general, doesn’t stay within the individual,” said Andrews, associate professor of psychology and ethnic studies and associate director of the university’s Minority Health Disparities Initiative. “We aren’t isolated islands. Those around us help us carry that stress.”
Andrews’ team will determine how discrimination exposure affects a person’s allostatic load, or the bodily wear and tear from stress. Their assessment uses stress reactivity tests and noninvasive physiological biomarkers like cholesterol, an inflammation-related protein, a diabetes indicator and more.
To analyze social network effects, Andrews uses the Open Dynamic Interaction Network. Through this software platform, participants provide information about daily experiences of discrimination and social support. Their responses could be supplemented by ODIN’s use of Bluetooth data, which can anonymously detect when participants are in close proximity.
Using advanced modeling techniques, the team will illuminate how discrimination stress cascades across a network and identify the network characteristics that reduce stress. This will shed light on how real-life practices and policies – like mentorship initiatives, hiring and retention efforts, and clinical guidelines – can curb discrimination’s health impacts.
A $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health funds this project.
Nebraska news release: Nebraska team studying how social ties may boost health outcomes of Latinos facing discrimination
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