When people talk about the black-white health gap, they usually mean that black people have worse health outcomes than white people. And generally, that’s true. On basically every measure, from childbirth to hypertension to HIV transmission rates, the black community fares worse.
But there’s one area where this gap doesn’t hold up: men’s mental health. White men are more likely to face depression associated with stressful life events than black men or women of any race, according to a recently published study in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.
This is an especially interesting finding because, as might be expected, white men reported having fewer stressful life events than black men. These events were defined as poor health, financial stress, issues with employment, marital or family problems, problematic gambling behavior, police harassment and being the victim of a crime or discrimination.
“White men were experiencing the least stress in their lives,” lead study author Dr. Shervin Assari, a research investigator at the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, told The Huffington Post. “They don’t get a lot of it and they are not used to it, so they are more prone to its harmful effects.”
Logically, people who haven’t dealt with stressful life events, or who have encountered them infrequently, lack the coping mechanisms and support systems that develop when overcoming hardship. Social support and religion, for example, are proven and effective coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.
“They don’t learn how they should mobilize their resources from previous stressful experiences,” Assari said. “Whom should they talk to? How should they act? They have not learned to respond to stress to the same level as black men.”
In a way, the study hits on a sticky subject. Depression is a serious and often debilitating mental health condition, and white men who are suffering from depression should be supported, not stigmatized.
On the other hand, the strong association between a small number of stressful life events and depression among white men speaks volumes about white privilege. The world treats white men well — so well, in fact, that infrequent negative life circumstances mentally harm them.
Resilience in the wake of stress
The study, which included almost 6,000 adults from around the country, controlled for income, education, employment and marital status. It did not find the same stress-depression correlation among women that it did among men.
When comparing stressful life events along gender and racial lines, women had more exposure to stress than men, and black participants had more exposure to stress than white participants. Black women reported the highest number of stressful life events while white men reported the least exposure to stress.
Unlike men, however, black and white women had similar stress-related susceptibility to depression. Assari thinks this may be a product of habituation, or when the body stops responding to a stress or stimulus it is repeatedly exposed to.
“You start developing a type of resistance to it,” he said. “After some types of very severe stressors, people transform.”
This is what’s known as post-traumatic growth, when a person shows resilience or emerges stronger in the wake of a traumatic experience. While such stressors are clearly a net negative, the results of a heartening 2013 study of low-income mothers in the years following Hurricane Katrina found that 30 percent of survivors felt the storm had given them an improved sense of personal strength, enhanced spirituality and improved relationships.
NOT ALL COPING MECHANISMS ARE HEALTHY
Learning to cope with repeated exposure to stress can have a dark side, too. Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And all too often, people’s behavioral strategies for dealing with stress are far from healthy. Smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating and using drugs are all coping methods, albeit unhealthy ones.
Coping with stress by drinking alcohol or overeating creates a physical health burden even as it dispels a mental one. Drinking too much can lead to heart disease, liver disease and digestive problems, while being overweight is associated with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the authors of a study on race, chronic stress and health disparities published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2010 wrote:
For many individuals, especially among materially disadvantaged ethnic groups, the short-term benefits of reducing states such as anxiety, depression, and frustration may psychologically outweigh the risk of poor long-term physical health from behaviors such as overeating, consuming alcohol, using tobacco, and using over-the-counter or illicit drugs.
Dispelling the myth that men don’t get depressed
Perhaps the most important takeaways from Assari’s study are the fact that men do suffer from depression, and that the study dispels the highly damaging belief that mental health and emotions aren’t something men need to worry about. In fact, it’s just the opposite. While white men certainly enjoy privileges that come with their gender and skin color, they are especially vulnerable the debilitating effects of stress-related depression.
White men are also at a high risk for suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that white men have the highest suicide rates of any demographic, accounting for 70 percent of all suicides committed in the United States in 2013.
Of course, depression isn’t always linked to stressful life events. Moreover, a strong association between stress and depression doesn’t mean that white men as a group are more likely to suffer from depression than women. According to the National Comorbidity Survey, the lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorder among men is 13 percent. Among women, that number rises to a full 20 percent who will suffer from the disorder over the course of their lifetimes.