ISU study finds discrimination leads to greater drug use in African-American teens

AMES, Iowa -- Research led by psychologists at Iowa State University has found that incidents of racial discrimination are the strongest predictors of subsequent drug use among African-American teens.

The study of more than 600 African-American adolescents from Georgia and Iowa found that those who experience racial discrimination prior to age 12 are twice as likely to use drugs by the time they're teens. Among those who experienced early discrimination and also exhibited some form of conduct disorder -- such as vandalism or burglary -- more than half reported drug use five years later.

Rick Gibbons and Meg Gerrard, both professors of psychology and scientists with Iowa State's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, led the study. ISU Professor of Psychology Carolyn Cutrona, director of the Institute for Social and Behavioral Research; Hsiu-Chen Yeh, a sociologist and statistician from Iowa State; Michael Cleveland, a psychologist at Penn State University; Ronald Simons, a sociologist from the University of Georgia; and Gene Brody, a child and family development researcher from the Center for Family Research at the University of Georgia, also contributed. They authored a paper titled "Early experience with racial discrimination and conduct disorder as predictors of subsequent drug use: A critical period hypothesis," which will be published in the next issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a professional journal.

"The adolescents in this study are now 18 or 19 years old. We first started studying them when they were 10," said Gibbons. "What we found is that incidents of early discrimination, especially when coupled with histories of conduct disorder, were very strong predictors of subsequent drug use when these youths were older teens. Discrimination was found to be the strongest predictor of subsequent abuse of any measure we had.

"In making that conclusion, it should be emphasized that African-American kids use substances, including drugs, significantly less than white kids -- in spite of the fact that they experience this additional stress (from discrimination)," he said.

The methodology

For the last 10 years, researchers have been studying 889 African-American families -- half from Des Moines and Waterloo in Iowa, and the other half from small towns in Georgia and the suburbs of Atlanta. Just over 600 of those families chose to participate in this study, with each having a child between the ages of 10 and 12 and a defined primary caregiver.

Videotape interviews were conducted with the adolescent participants, an older sibling, and their parents. Interviews took place at the family homes or nearby locations. Follow-up interviews were conducted at approximately two and five years later.

A list of 13 events -- such as an employer ridiculing a subject in front of co-workers, or expressing low expectations because of one's race -- was used to assess perceived racial discrimination by the parent and the child. Participants were asked to report whether they had directly experienced events of racial discrimination or observed them happening to a family member.

Conduct disorder was defined as having exhibited three or more of the following behaviors within the previous year, with at least one incident in the past six months: vandalism, shoplifting, arson, physical abuse and/or burglary.

During the five-year follow-up interviews, participants also were asked to report use of such substances as marijuana, ecstasy, methamphetamine (meth, speed, crank, ice, and crystal), cocaine, and other drug injections in the previous 12 months.

Discrimination is a strong influence

Twenty-one percent of the 140 respondents who had experienced discrimination but no conduct disorder reported drug use five years after the initial interview, compared with 13 percent of the 440 who had reported low discrimination. Fifty-seven percent of the 14 who had experienced both high discrimination and conduct disorder reported drug use, compared with 33 percent from among 12 who reported conduct disorder but low discrimination. Only one in six of all subjects reported drug use.

In a separate but related study, Gibbons and Gerrard first asked some of these adolescents to imagine a situation in which they had either experienced discrimination or one in which they had experienced other types of stress, such as job-related. The authors then observed the effect it had on their mood states. What they found was that revisiting discrimination, but not other types of stress, led some of the participants to report increased anger -- as opposed to depression or anxiety -- and that, in turn, led to more willingness to use drugs. They concluded that the anger resulting from discrimination is an important factor contributing to increased risk for drug use.

"These results suggest that identification of behavioral problems as well as distress associated with discriminatory experience at an early age among African-Americans is important," wrote the researchers. "Preventative-interventions aimed at black parents prepare their children for difficulties they are likely to face as a result of discrimination from others. They may be particularly effective if presented to children under the age of 12 or 13."

Their research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute of Drug Abuse. They have applied for additional funding to continue the study for another five years.