Howard Stevenson discusses stress of racial discrimination in the “Washington Post”

June 14, 2024
Howard Stevenson seated in front of a high school classroom, facing students who are out of focus in the foreground, appearing relaxed and casual, resting his hands in his lap and wearing a grey suit with a purple tie, listening to one of the students off-camera sharing an experience.

Howard Stevenson working with high school students.

Howard Stevenson, the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education at Penn GSE, has long emphasized the importance of mindfulness and emotional acknowledgment in helping Black youths cope with racial discrimination. His views are highlighted in a recent Washington Post article discussing a new study published in JAMA Network Open, which shows Black adolescents facing racial discrimination are at higher risk of depression and anxiety.

The University of Georgia study, led by Assaf Oshri, reveals the complex ways Black youths process discrimination. Stevenson, who leads the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, sees such research as crucial for effective intervention strategies. “That’s like vitamins for your amygdala,” he said, stressing the need for youths to recognize and process their feelings.

Oshri’s team analyzed data from over 1,500 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, using fMRI scans to observe the amygdala’s activity. They found a significant correlation between the amygdala shutting down in response to negative stimuli and increased internalizing symptoms like anxiety and depression. About 20% of participants exhibited these trends.

Stevenson underscores the importance of mindfulness for Black adolescents to help them acknowledge and process stress. “The practice of noticing what’s happening to your body, thoughts, and feelings” is central to intervention work, he said.

Oshri noted that while the brain’s response might offer short-term protection, it could have long-term emotional costs. The study highlights the need to document how discriminatory experiences harm children’s development.

Ryan DeLapp, a psychologist and creator of the Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Healing program, agreed, emphasizing that biological data should complement personal anecdotes to fully understand the impact of discrimination.

Through studies like Oshri’s, experts like Stevenson can better inform strategies that help Black youths heal from racial discrimination, ensuring their mental health and development are supported.

Read more about the study and Stevenson’s remarks in the Washington Post.