Discussion of Prejudice and Discrimination as Social Stressors

Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences and Deputy Chair for MPH Programs at the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, focuses on studying public health issues related to minority health. Based on this body of work, in January 2010 Dr. Meyer provided expert testimony in a major civil rights case related to the right of gay men and lesbians to marry in the United States (Perry v. Schwartzenegger). His areas of research include stress and illness in minority populations, in particular, the relationship of minority status, minority identity, prejudice and discrimination and mental health outcomes in sexual minorities and the intersection of minority stressors related to sexual orientation, race/ethnicity and gender.

Dr. Meyer has developed a model of minority stress that describes the relationship of social stressors and mental disorders and helps to explain LGBT health disparities, for which he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution award from Division 44 (LGBT Division) of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Meyer joined us via Skype on February 23, 2011 to discuss his work in an interactive question and answer session.

Dr. Meyer presented on his model of minority stress and gave lucid examples of his model of stress, coping and mental health in LGB populations. Dr. Meyer's model of minority stress discusses how minorities' experience of stress impacts their mental health outcomes.

Minority stress is an important area of research in psychology. Dr. Meyer has discussed stress, as it is generally conceived "as any condition having the potential to arouse the adaptive machinery of the individual." A stress response can occur to minor or major life events. Dr. Meyer emphasized that stress is not unique to LGB individuals, but minority stress comes from the disadvantages, stigma and prejudices that LGB people encounter. This type of stress requires a special adaptive response or responses.

Dr. Meyer's model emphasizes the interactions between an individual's minority status, the strength of the individual's identification with a minority group, social supports that may be available through that group, the general stress that everyone feels, stressful awareness of societal level incidents of prejudice, discrimination and violence, and personal stressors related to the individual's minority status.

When an individual has an LGB identity as a strong part of his or her self-concept, the stressors related to the minorities' status in society at large will affect that individual. LGB individuals who strongly identify with the LGB community can therefore be exposed to higher stress. However, if they are involved with the LGB community, they are also likely to feel increased social supports, which may help them cope with stress.

Societal level, or distal, stressors are stressors that can cause stress simply by being aware of their existence or possibility. Prejudice, discrimination and violence related to minority status make up this type of stress. Historically, such discrimination and violence has gone unpunished or even been sanctioned by the government. Studies have shown that LGB people are more likely than heterosexuals to have experienced prejudice. Hate crimes, in addition to the accompanying physical harm, contain a symbolic message that one is devalued or rejected by the larger social group.

Personal level, or proximal, stressors are stressors that an individual experiences directly. Unique to LGB persons is the prejudice events in one's family. Violence can occur to an LGB person by a family member (someone coming out in a family could be harmed). General stress that everyone feels, for example getting stuck in a traffic jam, is also felt by minority individuals. LGB people also cope with stress related to their minority group status.

Dr. Meyer's discussion with regard to personal level stressors encountered by LGB people included "daily hassles" such as completing forms that have no appropriate place for sexual orientation or placement of an intimate other on a form. These daily hassles are annoying, just like hassles for all people are, but take on a symbolic meaning for the LGB person.

He also discussed the stress that accrues through concealment of minority identity, the expectation of rejection and internalized homophobia because of minority status. Concealment can be very difficult psychologically and has a cost benefit ratio attached to it for some people. On the one hand, an LGB person who comes out has greater opportunity for community with others; on the other hand, the increased visibility can have significant stress consequences, due to rejection and discrimination by others. Internalized homophobia is an LGB person's acquisition of social stigma.

Dr. Meyer also discussed the importance of non-events as a form of stress that a person may not recognize. These non-events are things that should be normally expected to happen, but do not happen to a person. An example of this is not getting a promotion when it was merited, because of sexual orientation. This type of stress is something an LGB person may have difficulty articulating, because the person did not expect a promotion.

This seems to be a particularly salient feature to his model of stress, since, in counseling, this issue may not be directly verbalized by a client. The therapist may have to gently point out to a client that he or she has been denied a normally expected experience.

Various audience questions were addressed in the discussion of these topics. There was more to Dr. Meyer's discussion, and this can be found in his scholarly contributions. We were very grateful that Dr. Meyer took time from his very busy schedule and agreed to join us.

Further information on Dr. Meyer's work can be found here.