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BYU Study: Racism Associated with Disturbed Sleep and Depression in Latinos

BYU Study: Racism Associated with Disturbed Sleep and Depression in Latinos


      Perceiving racism is related to sleep difficulties and depression in Hispanic immigrants, according to a new study by a Brigham Young University researcher in the midst of a multi-year project to study why Mexicans collectively experience higher blood pressure and incidents of heart disease after immigrating to the United States.

      Published in the most recent issue of Ethnicity and Disease, the paper expounds on previous work by establishing sleep problems as a link between racism and depression.

      “We found that perceived racism impacts the quality of their sleep and that disturbed sleep is related to depression,” says lead author Dr. Patrick Steffen, assistant professor of clinical psychology. “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. Sleep is the pathway through which racism affects depression.”

      Steffen explores connections between the mind and body and is particularly interested in how stress from various causes can affect physical health. He authored a 2003 study that showed perceived racism is related to sustained increased blood pressure.

      Now he is halfway through a $260,000, four-year study funded by the American Heart Association seeking causes of higher blood pressure and increased rates of heart disease in Mexican immigrants. Mexicans generally experience low blood pressure and low rates of heart disease in their native country. Changes in diet and physical activity once they immigrate undoubtedly play a role, and Steffen is exploring those angles as well as stressors such as lack of social support, job anxieties and the factors he focused on in the new study, racism, sleep and depression.

      Steffen has counseled Spanish-speaking immigrants in Utah dealing with stress and depression. He says recent immigrants don’t seem to feel much racism, possibly because they often don’t understand English yet. Their stress is more related to living in a new culture. Latinos who have lived in the United States for several years and have become more aware of how other people are treating them seem to experience more racism, he says.

      He and co-author Matthew Bowden, a BYU graduate student, studied a group of 168 Hispanic immigrants who had been in the United States for an average of five years. Steffen and Bowden examined a number of explanations for the interaction of the three principle factors; sleep, racism and depression.

      “We’ve looked at it several ways,” Steffen says. “Statistically, the stronger case was for sleep being the link between racism and depression.”

      Knowing that quality of sleep is tied to physical effects like blood pressure and the immune system, Steffen hopes his new study will encourage further research into the way stressors such as racism can affect sleep and, consequently, health.

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