What Are the Potential Effects of Discrimination?

Loren Kerns/CC-BY 2.0

Discrimination can lead to poor physical health, stress, anxiety, depression and decreased enjoyment of social interactions. Discrimination of all kinds can negatively affect relationships, employment and quality of life.

Discrimination comes in many forms, including age, race, sexual orientation, disability and cultural identity. People who have experienced some form of discrimination report higher stress and anxiety levels than those who have not. This makes them less inclined to associate and cooperate with others. They become subject to stereotypes, which can result in reduced frequency and enjoyment of social interactions. Individuals subjected to ongoing discrimination can also lash out at others and react to the discrimination with violence.

Physical Consequences

When subjected to discrimination, people report a diverse range of health problems. Acute physical responses to discrimination include increased heart rate, stomach ulcers, digestive problems and profuse sweating. Over time, those who have experienced discrimination report a higher rate of chronic illness and disease compared to the general population. People who have been discriminated against are also less likely to have access to proper medical care. Because of the chronic physical health consequences from discrimination, affected individuals are more likely to rate their overall health as “poor” or “average” instead of “good.” Poor health is linked to chronic stress, which increases with the frequency and duration of discrimination that a person experiences.

Psychological Consequences

The effects of discrimination also manifest in psychological ways. Stress and anxiety are major emotional consequences of discrimination. When adults are exposed to discrimination, they develop a heightened sense of vigilance. They may change their behavior as a result, which also adds to their levels of stress. Members of marginalized groups, for instance, might feel an increased need to make themselves look neat, tidy and presentable in public to get service and avoid harassment. Some don’t leave home without preparing an appropriate response to threats and insults that they feel they might face. Sometimes, people’s stress levels rise with the perception of discrimination, even if they are not experiencing harassment at the time. Over time, people who are discriminated against may also develop depression. Their feelings of self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth drop as they are repeatedly insulted, ignored and excluded from social events. This also carries over to the workplace, where individuals may be passed over for a raise or promotion due to their identity. In some cases, workers report being fired and demoted because of race, religion, gender and other factors. Alcohol and drug abuse are typically higher among people who have been discriminated against. As with physical ailments, subjection to discrimination causes those with consequential psychological problems to report a lower quality of life and overall poor health.

Affect on Children and Others

In addition to the affected individual, the impacts of discrimination can have an affect on others. A parent who faces discrimination, for instance, might be less capable of helping a child reach his or her potential. As a result of the parent’s suffering, the child becomes more likely to develop behavioral problems. Over time, the effects of discrimination can alter the way the brain perceives information, which can cause a decline in cognitive function, planning capacity and the ability to make logical decisions.