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Discomfort With Multiculturalism Linked to Despair

New research points to a possible precursor to America's suicide and opioid epidemics.
Weeping white man

Among white and Hispanic Americans, the inability, or unwillingness, to cope with our nation's new racial realities is associated with elevated levels of depression.

The rising rates of suicide and opioid addiction have been labeled an "epidemic of despair." But if many Americans are so despondent that they're risking—or taking—their own lives, what drove them to that dark place?

Economic woes are commonly cited, but if anything, these psychological issues have accelerated during a period of prosperity—which suggests that the economic answer is partial at best. New research points to a different source of emotional distress.

A new study finds a link between psychological distress and discomfort with multiculturalism. Among white and Hispanic Americans, the inability, or unwillingness, to cope with our nation's new racial realities is associated with elevated levels of depression, as well as feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.

This relationship "is not diminished by controlling for life-stress events such as unemployment and [personal] financial crisis," writes interdisciplinary researcher Frank Samson of the University of California–Los Angeles. His study is posted in the online journal PLoS One.

Samson analyzed data from the Portraits of American Life Study, which featured in-depth, face-to-face interviews with 2,292 Americans. The sample was designed to include a mix of races and ethnicities; about half the participants identified as white. The data was collected in 2006, which Samson notes is "in the middle of the rising trend of white American death rates."

To measure psychological distress, participants were asked whether, over the past 12 months, they had ever experienced a period of two weeks or longer in which they (a) felt sad, empty, or depressed for most of the day; (b) felt hopeless nearly every day; and (c) felt worthless nearly every day.

Comfort with multiculturalism was gauged by participants' level of agreement with this statement: "If we want to create a society where people get along, we must recognize that each ethnic group has the right to maintain its own unique traditions."

Samson factored in a series of statistics that could influence racial attitudes, including participants' age, education, income, and gender, as well as whether they felt they had been "had been treated unfairly in the past three years because of their race." He then crunched the numbers, and found a clear pattern.

"White respondents who strongly agreed with multiculturalism had a 5.6 percent probability of feeling psychological distress," he writes, "while a Hispanic with similar views had a 6.9 percent probability.

"In marked contrast, a white respondent who strongly disagreed with multiculturalism had a 16.8 percent probability of feeling psychological distress for two weeks or longer, while a Hispanic respondent who strongly disagreed had a 19 percent probability."

African-American participants were only slightly more likely to report psychological issues if they disliked multiculturalism (8 percent, vs. 6.2 percent for those who favored it).

"Historically, blacks have been largely absent from discussions about assimilation," Samson says. "Because of this history, tensions between multiculturalism and assimilation might be less salient or consequential for the mental health of African-Americans."

But it's a big deal to many members of the shrinking majority. The new norm of respecting a variety of cultural traditions is apparently "perceived as a form of cultural oppression by some whites," Samson writes. This perception, he adds, "may be associated with psychological distress."

The findings are a good reminder that hatred is only one possible response to discomfort over social change, and a perceived loss of status. Some people manage to adjust their thinking; others turn those negative emotions inward.

For some time now, prominent politicians and partisan news outlets have stoked fear of multiculturalism for their own gain. This research suggests that approach may not just be poisoning our politics. It may be costing lives.