Does Discrimination Lead to Substance Abuse?

People who are discriminated against cope with that discrimination in various ways. Although some cope adaptively and use strategies that are constructive and empowering when they are faced with adversity, others turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms. One such mechanism is the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. Racial discrimination has been shown to be related to increased drug and alcohol use, but has not been proven to be the cause of the increase. So why is it that some people use alcohol and drugs to cope while others do not? Meg Gerrard of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire wanted to explore this question further. In a recent study, Gerrard looked at whether people used drugs/alcohol as a method of coping consistent with their habitual coping strategies, or if they believed that substance use would decrease their feelings of stress and negativity stemming from the discrimination.

Gerrard conducted three separate studies designed to elicit feelings of discrimination among a sample of African-American adolescents. In her third study, she followed the level of substance use for eight years to determine the long-term influence of the discrimination-use relationship. She found that the participants who felt that substance use was an acceptable way to cope with problems were more likely to use drugs/alcohol when they felt discriminated against than those who did not endorse substance use. Over time, the results revealed that those who did support substance use as a method of coping continued to use drugs/alcohol throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, while those who never supported this belief did not. These findings suggest that adopting substance-use behaviors early on can lead to long-term maladaptive coping strategies for some individuals.

The findings from this study were gathered only from African-American participants. Future work should look at the coping-discrimination dynamic among other minority individuals, as evidence exists that prejudice and discrimination increases stress across all ethnicities. Gerrard noted that one domain that was not examined in her study was the effect of parental support. When parents teach their children how to handle stressful situations prior to their occurrence, children have a better chance of dealing with challenges such as discrimination in productive and adaptive ways rather than trying to relieve the stress with drugs or alcohol. Research should explore the buffering effects that family and parental support can have on this segment of the population. Until then, these studies demonstrate that acceptance of maladaptive coping strategies can increase negative behavior in people facing discrimination. “The current studies also provide evidence that use-as-coping is not caused by discrimination—instead, it increases the relation between discrimination and subsequent substance use,” Gerrard said.

Gerrard, Meg, Michelle L. Stock, Megan E. Roberts, Frederick X. Gibbons, Ross E. O’Hara, Chih-Yuan Weng, and Thomas A. Wills. Coping with racial discrimination: The role of substance use. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 26.3 (2012): 550-60. Print.

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  • belle r

    October 30th, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    You can’t let the actions of others influence your actions and the decisions that you make. We know that they do but that can’t be the end all and be all. It’s just no excuse, no matter what someone does to you, you just can’t let theat influence who you become.

  • Georgio

    October 30th, 2012 at 3:21 PM

    Being discriminated against can either make you weak or it can make you stronger, your choice. If it makes you wek, then of course abusing drugs could be the path that you choose to follow. But allow it to make you strong, and you could be a force to be reckoned with. That is what I would wish for you if this is something that you eventually have to encounter.

  • tolly

    October 31st, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    Aren’t there other demographics that experience discrimination in higher numbers that we should also examine?

  • brett

    October 31st, 2012 at 4:49 AM

    I hate to say this but those that use substances because they want to ‘cope’ with something are just looking for ways to justify their use. They are not telling the truth. Not only for racial discrimination but for any issue,those that use substances are often the ones that would use it anyway,issue or no issue!

  • COLE

    October 31st, 2012 at 2:43 PM

    Being discriminated against sucks.Its like being hit again and again and then you feel so bad that you would do anything to get rid of the feeling. I have been there done that. And if the discrimination episodes are a regular thing it can push you into things you wouldn’t even have imagined to do.

  • Jayden

    October 31st, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    There are many different things that can lead to drug use and abuse but I think that one of the biggest things is being made to feel less then worthy at any point in your life. If someone disses you or puts you down then that wears away your feelings of confidence and self worth. What better way to make yourself feel good again, or to at least block out some of the pain, than by beginning to use drugs? We use this as a way to cope with others, to deal with bad siutaions and to block out some of the pain that we may be feeling. It’s sad but for some people this is the only way that they have to get through the day, because what they are accustomed to living is just too sad and depressing for them.


    November 1st, 2012 at 12:20 AM

    Discrimination and bias can affect a person. But I think there are many many positive outlets to cope with it and the ones that are choosing the negative outlets are doing so out of their own choice rather than due to the discrimination itself. It’s not so hard to meditate or look for ways to exhibit your talent and disprove those people rather than drown yourself in alcohol or drugs you know.

    The ones that do that are not ready to put in the required effort. This may not sound nice but I think they are just lazy and do not even want to disprove the bullies but just want to zone out of the bias.

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