PROVO — The expanding Hispanic community in Utah could be suffering from depression and sleep disorders related to perceived racism, according to a new study by a Brigham Young University researcher.
Many previous studies have linked depression and sleep disorders, BYU researcher and clinical psychologist Patrick Steffen said, but his new study looks at racism, sleep disorders and depression together.
"We found that perceived racism impacts the quality of their sleep and that disturbed sleep is related to depression," Steffen said. "Individuals who have experienced racism could be thinking about what happened the previous day, feeling stressed about their ability to succeed when being judged by something other than merit — skin tone or a different way of speaking. Sleep is the pathway through which racism affects depression."
As a clinical psychologist, depression and sleep deprivation in relation to perceived racism is something Monroe White at the Mountainlands Community Health Clinic in Provo is familiar with.
"I see that kind of thing frequently," he said.
As with other types of depression, Hispanics feel sad, discouraged, irritable and anxious. They start to lose motivation and have less joy, pleasure and interest in things, White said.
The perceived racism causes depression because those affected have difficulty determining where they fit in with other people.
When a person is a Hispanic moving into a new culture, the people in that culture are not always welcoming, White said. Sometimes people are hesitant to accept others for who they are and what they are.
"So it's a two-sided thing," he said.
Steffen, an assistant professor of clinical psychology, is halfway through a $260,000, 4-year study funded by the American Heart Association. He said the American Heart Association is interested in learning more about heart disease factors in Mexican immigrants in general.
Mexican immigrants, who generally experience low blood pressure and low rates of heart disease in their native country, are experiencing high blood pressure and increased rates of heart disease after immigration.
Although these increases can be attributed to a change in diet and physical activity once they immigrate, a 2003 study done by Steffen showed perceived racism is related to sustained increased blood pressure.
Steffen and BYU graduate student Matthew Bowden gave validated clinical mental health evaluations to 168 Hispanic immigrants who had been in the United States for an average of five years. Among the questions in the evaluations were questions related to racism, sleep quality and depression.
After they ran statistical tests on the answers, they considered the possibility that the three factors interacted in various combinations.
"We've looked at it several ways," Steffen said. "Statistically, the stronger case was for sleep being the link between racism and depression."
Steffen has been working with Spanish-speaking immigrants in Utah dealing with stress and depression. He learned Spanish as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Spain. He said immigrants who have more recently arrived in the United States don't experience depression related to racism as often as immigrants who have lived here for a longer period of time. It isn't until after they start learning and understanding English that they perceive racism.
Aside from taking prescribed medications and seeking professional help, White said it is necessary for immigrants suffering from depression to "get active and get into life somehow."