Political activism: a possible protective factor for the mental health of African American and Latin American university students?

Political activism: a possible protective factor for the mental health of African American and Latin American university students?

When an African American or Latin American student suffers many racial micro-aggressions, can political activism affect his mental health by helping him feel less stressed, anxious or depressed? 


The consequences of racism are unfortunately sadly known and increasing importance is given to understanding which elements lead individuals to show racist and xenophobic behaviors with the intention of intervening preventively and / or promptly to reduce episodes of discrimination.

Some studies on the racism phenomenon have also focused on finding what can be protective factors for the victims, which can help them reduce their stress and anxiety levels. One of the most recent works in this regard is that of Hope, Velez, Offidani-Bertrand, Keels and Durkee (2018) conducted on African- and Latin American university students

University students belonging to African American and Latin American ethnic and racial minorities are more at risk of developing mental health issues, such as depressive symptoms, personal dissatisfaction and social isolation (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000; Hinderlie & Kenny, 2002).

The consequences of discriminatory micro-aggression have an impact on academic results. In fact, the greatest difficulties during the first year of university are due to emotional rather than academic factors (Pritchard & Wilson, 2003; Szulecka, Springett, & DePauw, 1987).

A factor of protection for the health of university students belonging to racial and ethnic minorities can be political activism, that is, civic commitment to make changes to situations deemed unfair.

In this regard, Hope, Velez, Offidani-Bertrand, Keels and Durkee (2018) conducted their study to investigate the effects of political activism on the mental health of African and Latin American university students. The hypothesis that guides the study is that political activism can be an effective coping strategy for these young adults.

The study focused on African American and Hispanic students in their first year of university. The authors measured the variables of interest at the beginning of the first semester, during the winter holidays and at the end of the second semester.

The researchers collected data about the participants’ mental health, in particular regarding perceived stress (Perceived Stress Scale; Cohen, Kamarck, & Marmelstein, 1983), anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder Screener-Symptoms Scale; Carroll & Davidson, 2000 ) and depressive symptoms (Psychiatry / National Depression Screening Day Scale; Baer et al., 2000).

Political activism during the first year of university was measured using the Youth Involvement Inventory (Pancer, Pratt, Hunsberger, & Alisat, 2007). The data indicate that although 31% of the sample did not participate in any political activity during the first year of university, 57% of the students donated money, toys, clothes or other; 37% donated money or volunteered in a social or political group; 30% joined protests, marches, meetings or political demonstrations; Finally, less than 15% have directly engaged in a political campaign, in the boycott of a product or in its opposite, buycotting, that is, the purchase of a product to support a company in line with its ethical or political values.

In addition, the presence of racial and ethnic micro-aggressions was assessed, with a focus on those discriminatory behaviors that provoke feelings of inferiority at the academic level (Academic Inferiority subscale of the School-Based Racial / Ethnic Microaggressions Scale; Keels, Durkee, & Hope, 2017 ).

Other control variables considered are gender, being the first in one’s family to attend college, economic issues and political effectiveness.

The students reported having suffered several micro-attacks during the year. For African American students, these micro-aggressions are associated primarily with increased stress. For Latin Americans, however, they involve greater anxiety.

Not only micro-aggressions, but also political activism has different effects on African American and Latin American students. In fact, the African American students most involved in political life show lower levels of stress. On the contrary, political activism seems to have a negative effect on Hispanic students: the more politically active ones in fact exhibit more depressive symptoms.

The perhaps most relevant hypothesis of the study, however, concerns the possibility that political activism represents a protective factor especially for those who study in a discriminatory institutional context. That is, when an African American or Latin American student suffers many racial micro aggressions, can being politically active help him feel less stressed, anxious or depressed?

In the case of Hispanic students, it seems to be so: in fact, given the same discrimination, the more politically engaged Hispanic students show less depressive symptoms. In contrast, African American students who experience many discriminatory behaviors and who are politically more active report higher levels of anxiety and stress.

In light of this evidence, it can be argued that the results of this study are partly controversial. In fact, they show how political activism can sometimes be a source of support, and sometimes an additional source of stress, anxiety or depression.
Furthermore, political activism explains only a small part of the well-being or malaise of the participants. This means that other factors may be more relevant in determining the mental health of college students.

A further limitation of this study is that it considers the effects of political activism over a year. A longer longitudinal study would instead allow us to understand the effects of longer-term political activism.

If we want to understand how to improve the mental health of university students, bearing in mind the additional difficulties of those belonging to ethnic minorities, the role of political activism and other factors must be deepened.