Long-Term COVID-19 Mental Health Effects for Asian Americans

Previous research suggests consequences of discrimination during COVID-19.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

 Elijah O'Donnell/Unsplash
Source: Elijah O'Donnell/Unsplash

By Abigail Crowder

The novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China in December of 2019, but has rapidly become a growing concern for the global community, eventually being declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. As concern regarding the virus has grown in the United States, so has discrimination against Asian Americans. The virus has been personified as Chinese, and Asian American businesses and individuals are receiving the backlash as they become the targets of racial slurs, speech, and attacks.

Despite their responsibility to deliver current news with little bias, media outlets have been observed as one of the higher contributing factors to the increased discrimination and xenophobia. In an article for U.S. News, Middle Tennessee State University professor Katie Foss from the School of Journalism and Strategic Media writes:

“U.S. coverage has been inflammatory, particularly across social media and other unsubstantiated sources, which are unfortunately often taken as fact.”

This barrage of stigmatized media has already negatively impacted Asian Americans and is likely to continue as fears and concerns over the coronavirus grow.

In recognition of the integral role the media has played in the increased discrimination against Asian Americans, Dr. Jun Wen and his team of tourism scholars from different universities conducted a post-published review on a 2015 research study examining the role of perceived racial discrimination on one’s mental health. Wen et al. include the role that the media may play as the coronavirus continues to spread and discuss the negative effects Asian American businesses and the tourism industry have already observed.

The study they reference was led by Craig Rodriguez-Seijas, a clinical psychology student in the Stony Brook Graduate School whose interests include the intersection of psychopathology and environmental factors. The study, “Transdiagnostic Factors and Mediation of the Relationship between Perceived Racial Discrimination and Mental Disorders”, was published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2015. The purpose of the experiment was to analyze whether or not one’s perceived racial discrimination contributed to mental health illness, and if it was through a specific diagnosis or a transdiagnostic factor. In other words, Rodriguez-Seijas et al. were investigating whether an encounter of perceived racial discrimination could account for a specific mental illness diagnosis or a generalized diagnosis, one that addresses an overarching category of disease.

The national probability sample included 5,191 non-institutionalized African American adults in the United States who participated in the National Survey of American Life (NSAL) between February 2001 and March 2003; 3,570 of the participants were African American and 1,621 were Afro-Caribbean. Design features were implemented to ensure sociodemographic characteristics were equally represented, despite oversampling of African Americans.

Rodriguez-Seijas et al. used the World Mental Health Composite International Diagnostic Interview to test participants for any of 12 examined external or internal mental health illnesses. The NSAL included nine situations where participants may have experienced racial discrimination and asked participants to mark the number of times they had experienced the situation. In order to combat potential skew and outliers, a “more than five” option was available.

The research team used multiple indices and models to evaluate the data and examine different associations and implications. The results concluded that the direct effect of perceived discrimination increased the probability for the individual to be diagnosed with a specific illness. However, the positive correlation of the indirect effect of discrimination and the probability of having a mental illness, meaning the role of the transdiagnostic factor, was much greater than the direct effect. This evidence confirms that perceived mental discrimination is positively correlated with a mental illness diagnosis, and can support inferences of the impact of discrimination through the media on Asian Americans during the coronavirus.

In their review “Effects of Misleading Media Coverage on Public Health Crisis: A Case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak in China,” Wen et al. discuss how the research of Rodriguez-Seijas et al. may be applied to the current situation and provide insight on the potential long-lasting effects of current attitudes against Chinese and Asian populations, including individuals of Asian descent living around the world, like Asian Americans. Adding their own hypothesis for the role of media, they write:

“[T]he media’s publication of biased headlines could presumably bring adverse effects to local communities, namely through inequitable treatment and misperceptions. In the case of [the coronavirus], such coverage could affect Chinese people living overseas. Individuals could also develop mental health conditions that may persist in the current social climate.”

The potential health effects that have been referenced by both research teams include serious mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, substance and alcohol abuse disorders, and others that have negative impacts on the individuals and those around them. These illnesses are serious and could be limited simply with the adjustment of media coverage to an informed, seldom biased coverage of the coronavirus story.

In this chaotic period of unknown, the American public is clinging onto all of the information it can find, relying on public news sources to provide accurate data from the government and other informed institutions about the coronavirus. Americans are scared, and understandably so, but that does not mean they can place all of their blame and fear on a specific ethnic population. Media outlets must recognize their integral role in the distribution of information and the power they hold, adjusting their delivery to limit the bias against Asian Americans.

As has become clearer recently, the United States will be in this battle for an extended period of time. It cannot continue to build walls of fear and uncertainty around race when it requires a mass movement of all Americans to come together to support one another. Without the recognition of the problem and an active effort to resolve it, the country could be looking at an additional health crisis, one surrounding mental illness, in the near future.

Abigail Crowder is an M.A. student in the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois and currently serves as the Operations Director at Re:new Project in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

References

Ducharme, J. (2020, March 11). World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’. Here’s what that means. Retrieved from https://time.com/5791661/who-coronavirus-pandemic-declaration/.

Radu, S. (2020, Rebruary 7). How global media covers coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-02-07/how-the-global-media-covered-stories-about-the-coronavirus-outbreak.

Rodriguez-Seijas C, Stohl M, Hasin DS, Eaton NR. Transdiagnostic Factors and Mediation of the Relationship Between Perceived Racial Discrimination and Mental Disorders. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(7):706–713. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0148

Wen, J., Aston, J., Liu, X., & Ying, T. (2020). Effects of misleading media coverage on public health crisis: a case of the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak in China. Anatolia, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/13032917.2020.1730621