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Racial Discrimination, Ethnic Identity, and Depression among Cambodian American Adolescents


Racial discrimination has emerged as a risk factor for poor health and well-being, and recent evidence has highlighted racial discrimination's effects on adolescent adjustment. Still, little is known about the nature of race-based discriminatory experiences for various ethnic groups and their respective mental health consequences. Research suggests that identification with one's racial or ethnic community can potentially buffer racial discrimination's negative consequences and serves as an important factor in the development of children and youth of color.

The present study investigates racial discrimination and ethnic identity as they relate to mental health for Cambodian American adolescents. Guided by theoretical perspectives that include the integrative model, stress process, and risk and resilience theory, this research had four primary research aims: (1) to examine the relationship between racial discrimination in multiple contexts and depression, (2) to investigate whether ethnic identity protects against the influence of racial discrimination on depression, (3) to explore factors associated with racial discrimination, and (4) to analyze factors associated with ethnic identity.

The analyses examined cross-sectional data from a survey of 418 Cambodian American adolescents residing in Southern California. The survey data derive from a larger research project using a community-based participatory research (CBPR) framework, wherein Cambodian American youth and adult community members helped shape the purpose, process, and dissemination of the research. Secondary data analyses included multiple imputation to address missing data and multivariate analyses examining direct and indirect effects of primary study variables.

The results indicated that Cambodian American adolescents experience racial discrimination in multiple contexts--from peers, in school, and in the community--and further, that these discriminatory experiences were associated with depression. However, neither ethnic identity nor centrality and public regard subfactors moderated the association between racial discrimination and depression using post-imputation data. Furthermore, being male, having greater ethnic identification, and lower perceived socioeconomic status were associated with racial discrimination in various contexts. In addition, proficiency in Khmer (Cambodian) language was linked to elevated levels of both centrality and ethnic identity as a whole. In contrast, being older was associated with less centrality of ethnic identity.

The findings suggest that experiences with racial discrimination are multidimensional in nature and detract from mental health for Cambodian American adolescents. The study findings have implications for future interventions and prevention efforts by targeting specific settings that may expose adolescents to discrimination. Furthermore, the findings underscore the need to examine individuals' own perceptions of racial discrimination and how they may relate to mental health.

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