Critical Consciousness Helps Marginalized Youth Turn Mental Distress Toward Social Action

Psychological distress motivates racialized youth to engage in social action, developing critical consciousness and self-esteem.

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The results of a recent study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescents suggest that building self-esteem in Black and Latino youth may protect against the impact of online racial discrimination while fostering critical consciousness. By critical consciousness, the authors refer to people’s awareness of how systems of oppression influence them and how they can take social action against these systems.

For the researchers, led by Alvin Thomas at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the development of critical consciousness is of great importance for the well-being of racialized and minoritized groups:

“As adolescents develop an awareness of the historical, political, and structural forces contributing to inequitable conditions and outcomes (i.e., critical reflection), they shift their perspectives from solely attributing inequitable outcomes to personal shortcomings to also considering these outcomes as a result of structural oppression. Next, as youth gain awareness of structural inequalities, they gain an enhanced belief in their ability to affect change (i.e., critical agency) and begin to affect change in these oppressive systems through another component of critical consciousness. The final component of critical consciousness, critical action, refers to actions that youth engage in that affect change (e.g., voting, protesting).”

Black female volunteerPrevious research has found that experiencing racism, like with other forms of oppression, influences psychological distress, including (but not limited to) increased depression, anxiety, psychosis, and trauma reactions. Yet, some studies find that youth with high self-esteem who live through racial discrimination experience reduced psychological distress. Additionally, engaging with one’s communities and in social action reduces psychological distress.

Some emotions, especially anger, can be motivational, while others might impact our well-being and confidence to act. The researchers also found previous literature that suggested that people’s experiences of racism and critical reflection were associated with engagement in social action.

The study aimed to examine whether the relationship between online racial discrimination and critical consciousness was influenced by psychological distress. Additionally, they sought to study whether self-esteem would serve as a buffer for the impact of psychological distress on critical action.

To answer these questions, the research team contacted parents and Black and Afro-Latino teenagers between the ages of 12-18, who used social media at least twice a week, lived in the United States and spoke English. Those interested in participating in the survey received a link to the study. The sample comprised 356 participants (178 Black/African American participants and 178 Afro-Latino participants) and was predominantly female (78.92%).

31.74% of the participants were from families who earned less than $10,000. 49.72% of their families earned between $10,000 and $59,999. 11.23% earned between $60,000 and $99,999. 7.3% earned more than $100,000. In addition, most parents’ education level was less than a high school degree. 42% had a high school diploma, and 10.39% had graduated from higher education.

To measure psychological distress, the researchers used the 13-item Short Mood and Feeling Questionnaire. They also measured anxiety symptoms using the 5-time Brief Assessment of Anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms scale. The researchers also used the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, the 7-item Critical Agency Scale (used to measure the participants’ perceptions of agency or their ability to change their environment), and the 9-item Critical Action Scale (to measure their engagement in civic activities directed at social change). Finally, the researchers added questions about the participants’ social media use, exposure to online racial discrimination, and their sociodemographic information.

The results of the study confirmed the researcher’s hypotheses. They found that people experienced increased psychological distress with increased online racial discrimination. With increased racial discrimination, people’s critical agency decreased, but their critical action increased.

Additionally, they found that self-esteem mediated the association between psychological distress and critical agency, especially among those with low or average self-esteem. According to the authors:

“Adolescents with average or low levels of self-esteem may experience online racial discrimination and identify it as a systemic issue yet still ruminate on their psychological distress. These ruminations may motivate youth to consider how they can impact the issue and feel empowered to make a difference.”

The researchers suggest that this finding may be explained by the Yerkes-Dodson law, posing that a threshold amount of psychological distress is necessary to drive the motivation to take action. The impact of self-esteem on the relationship between psychological distress and critical agency might not have been as significant in youth with higher self-esteem because they already held confidence in their ability to transform their environment. The Yerkes-Dodson law might also explain how psychological distress mediates the relationship between online racial discrimination and critical action in teens with average or high self-esteem.

This study provides insight into the role of psychological distress in developing motivation to engage in social change-related actions. It also suggests that self-esteem is crucial in addressing the detrimental effects of psychological distress caused by racial discrimination. For this reason, the authors suggest that community and clinical psychologists should work toward developing self-esteem in marginalized youth who experience racial discrimination to prevent psychological distress and promote their ability to cope.

Moreover, the results suggest that mental health interventions should also foster critical consciousness to prevent the extinguishing of critical agency and action. These ideas have begun to flourish within psychotherapeutic frameworks developed by racially minoritized psychologists to address racism and engage in activism and critical action.

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Thomas, A., Gale, A. & Golden, A. R. (2023). Online Racial Discrimination, Critical Consciousness, and Psychosocial Distress Among Black and Latino Adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-022-01732-z (Link)

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