Strongly identifying with minority groups can have negative mental health impacts, studies suggest

New research suggests that feeling highly valued by your racial, ethnic, or sexual minority group can have some negative consequences for your mental health.

The new studies, published in the journals Group Processes & Intergroup Relations and European Journal of Social Psychology, suggest that people who view their everyday interactions through the lens of their ethnicity or sexual orientation are more likely to feel like they’ve suffered from discrimination.

But feeling valued by a social group still appears to be more helpful than harmful to minorities’ mental health overall.

“In part, this work was motivated by a desire to better understand the social and psychological determinants of minorities’ mental health (and similarly, a desire to help understand and ultimately address persistent U.S. racial/ethnic health disparities),” explained study author Christopher T. Begeny of the University of Exeter.

“I think it’s interesting that when we think about the topic of minority mental health what often comes to mind are minorities’ experiences with individuals outside their own minority group–namely, experiences with discrimination. And in fact over the past few decades this is where a lot of minority mental health research has been focused.”

“As a result, we now have a wealth of evidence indicating that discrimination indeed plays an important role in shaping minorities’ mental health. For example, it’s been linked to greater anxiety, depressive symptoms, and psychological distress — not to mention numerous links to adverse physical health outcomes (e.g., hypertension, coronary heart disease, asthma, chronic bronchitis, risk for diabetes and stroke, greater risk for alcohol dependence and substance abuse).”

“Only more recently have we seen an emerging body of research that focuses squarely on minorities’ intragroup experiences—and in particular, minorities’ experiences of feeling valued and admired among ethnic ingroup members. The current research aimed to start bringing those two areas of research together–examining the role that both minorities’ experiences with ingroup and outgroup members play, and considering the dynamic processes that link the two.”

“In other words, in previous work on minority mental health the importance of intragroup relations has frequently been overshadowed by a focus on minorities’ intergroup experiences; namely, with discrimination. This line of research, by comparison, aims to provide an integrative framework for systematically examining both the influence of minorities’ inter- and intragroup experiences on health.

“Ultimately, we think this not only creates a more rich and complete framework for understanding minorities’ mental health, but also gets closer to the reality of one’s everyday experiences, which often includes moving fluidly and frequently in between environments and encounters with ingroup and outgroup members. Thus, in part this research helps us begin to better understand the psychosocial dynamic that adjoins those experiences.”

In two published articles, consisting of four studies with 1,087 participants in total, Begeny and his colleague Yuen J. Huo found evidence that feeling valued in one’s minority group acts as a double-edged sword for mental health.

The studies examined Black, Asian, Latino, and gay Americans.

The researchers found that highly identifying with one’s minority group led to more frequent perceptions of discrimination, which in turn predicted poorer mental health, such as increased levels of stress and depressive symptoms.

“Intuitively, it seems like a good thing for individuals to feel valued within the different social groups they belong to. Yet the findings from our research suggest that for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, while there are indeed clear benefits to feeling valued and admired within one’s respective minority group there may also be certain indirect costs,” Begeny told PsyPost.

“These costs seem to arise in part because of the way that feeling valued within one’s minority group promotes vigilance to the various and sometimes insidious forms of discrimination that exist in our communities and institutions.”

Though having a strong social identity has some negative outcomes, Begeny said that the overall effect was positive.

“It is also very important to be clear about the following: in the studies we’ve conducted examining these potential benefits and costs, we always empirically test whether the benefits outweigh the costs. And in every study, we have consistently found that the benefits do in fact outweigh the costs,” he explained.

“The results of this research consistently indicate that it is a good thing for members of stigmatized social groups to feel valued, admired and embraced by fellow minority group members (albeit perhaps carrying some potential indirect health costs as well). And so it is in a similar vein we suggest that promoting positive minority ingroup relations is important and beneficial to minorities’ health, overall.”

There are also some ways for organizations to attenuate the negative consequences of a strong social identity, Begeny said.

“Our research suggests that in educational institutions, and in companies and organizations, it is important to create spaces where positive minority ingroup relations can be developed and strengthened. On university campuses, this may include racial and ethnic-oriented living-learning communities (e.g., those at UCLA, UConn, UofIowa, etc),” Begeny told PsyPost. “And in companies/organisations, this may include minority-focused employee-based groups, such as Google’s ERGs (employee resource groups), which in part help connect and support employees who are, for example, part of the Gay community, Black and Hispanic employees, women, etc. (see https://diversity.google/commitments/ for a list of ERGs).”

“We see these spaces as an asset and resource to their respective, broader educational or organizational community (not a source of division or segregation). Moreover, even if such spaces might have some (perhaps unanticipated) adverse implications for minorities’ health (as our research suggests; by heightening minorities’ vigilance to expressions of bias and discrimination on campus or at work, and ultimately fomenting psychological stress), it is important to keep in mind that: (a) the health benefits associated with these spaces will almost certainly outweigh any costs (again, as the results of our research indicate), and (b) the institution, company or organization within which these spaces exist might play a role in helping mitigate any potential adverse health effects (while preserving the benefits).”

“For example, even if a university’s living-learning communities serve to, among other things, heighten minorities’ vigilance to extant forms of discrimination on campus, if the university also shows a sincere commitment to addressing such extant forms of bias and discrimination–in part by creating systems for reporting incidents of discrimination that are truly accessible, responsive and supportive–it might convey to students who experience discrimination on campus that their institution is genuinely committed to identifying, addressing and ultimately eliminating those extant forms of it,” Begeny said.

“And that might meaningfully change one’s discrimination experience. For example, it may better enable one to feel that they have effective avenues for responding to that adverse experience, and that they are truly and more generally supported by their institution–both of which may serve as important resources to minority individuals, functionally and psychologically.”

“Thus, ultimately, having access to these resources may help buffer some of the adverse effects of any such discriminatory experiences,” Begeny continued. “Moreover, if an institution is actively working to address extant forms of discrimination on campus, then the institution will hopefully, over time, actually be reducing the amount of discrimination that minorities encounter.”

“And finally to note, such spaces on campus (and similar ones that exist within companies and organizations like Google) may help foment more collective action–that which aims to address extant forms of bias and discrimination within the institution,” Begeny added. “These opportunities for collective action might also ultimately serve as an important resource for minority individuals–providing a form of instrumental and psychological empowerment that can help mitigate the adverse effects of discrimination.”

“All to say, and consistent with what our research findings suggest, we foresee these types of spaces playing a valuable and important role within educational institutions, companies, organizations, etc.”

The two studies were titled: “Is it always good to feel valued? The psychological benefits and costs of higher perceived status in one’s ethnic minority group” and “When identity hurts: How positive intragroup experiences can yield negative mental health implications for ethnic and sexual minorities“.