Five Ways Prejudice Affects Well-Being

Female Student Being Bullied By ClassmatesThe ongoing dispute in Congress over a recent pay equality bill has reignited discussions about discrimination in the workplace. As political pundits debate the causes of discrimination, minority groups who live with unfair treatment experience the consequences. Disparate treatment isn’t just a moral problem, though. It can also lead to serious individual and societal consequences.

No. 1: Poor Performance

People who are exposed to stereotypes about their group tend to live up to those stereotypes, often leading to poor performance. A concept called “stereotype threat” explains this phenomenon. Numerous studies have found that, when a member of a minority group is reminded of a stereotype about his or her group, that person is more likely to under-perform. A woman who reads a book claiming that women are innately bad at math immediately prior to taking a standardized test, for example, will likely do worse on the test than she otherwise would.

Stereotype threat is so strong that sometimes minorities do not even need to be reminded of a stereotype. Simply drawing attention to group membership—by asking them to check the sex or race box on a test—can trigger stereotype threat.

No. 2: Physical Health Problems

It should come as no surprise that discrimination is stressful to those who experience it. Doctors already know that stress increases the lifetime risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other health and medical issues. New research suggests that discrimination-related stress may be even more dangerous.

A 2008 study found that, among African-Americans, race-related stress was a stronger predictor of health problems than other sources of stress. Such research may help shed light on ongoing health disparities between whites and blacks. On average, white men live about seven years longer than black men, and racial minorities are more vulnerable to chronic health problems and terminal illnesses. Perhaps such disparities are the direct result of a lifetime of stress.

No. 3: Mental Health Problems

Discrimination is inherently stressful, and stress increases a person’s risk for developing depression, anxiety, and similar mental health challenges. The rates of anxiety issues are significantly higher among women than men, and women are more than twice as likely as men to develop posttraumatic stress.

While a variety of factors play a role in these differences, discrimination could be one. Women are significantly more likely to suffer abuse than men, with one in three women experiencing a sexual assault at some point in her life. Such abuse is a significant risk factor for posttraumatic stress, and may also play a role in other mental health challenges.

No. 4: Drug Use

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that drug abuse costs in excess of $500 billion annually. Discrimination may be one factor that helps inflate this number. A 2010 study found that the experience of gender discrimination increased a woman’s likelihood of using hard drugs, even when a woman didn’t report experiencing stress as a result of such discrimination.

No. 5: Self-Sabotage

When people doubt their ability to perform well, they may develop explanations to explain poor performance that don’t harm their self-esteem. One common mechanism is self-sabotage. For example, a student who worries about his ability to do well on a math test might go out drinking the night before so that he can blame his poor performance on a hangover. Several recent studies have shown that the experience of discrimination increases the likelihood of self-sabotage.

One of the most unfortunate consequences of of discrimination is that they may serve to increase discrimination. A minority student who repeatedly sabotages himself may be blamed for his under-performance, even when such self-sabotage is his way of coping with racism. A woman who experiences sexual violence might develop posttraumatic stress or turn to drugs.

Such mental health consequences could then be used to justify denying the woman resources or opportunities. By becoming more aware of the risks of discrimination, it’s possible to minimize its effects and steadily work toward a world free of oppression.


  1. Chakraborty, A. (2002). Does racial discrimination cause mental illness? The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180(6), 475-477. doi: 10.1192/bjp.180.6.475
  2. Discrimination may harm your health. (2012, January 16). Retrieved from
  3. Fox, M. (2012, April 17). Study shows why US blacks die younger. Retrieved from
  4. Physiological & psychological impact of racism and discrimination for African-Americans. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  5. Ro, A., & Choi, K. (2010). Effects of gender discrimination and reported stress on drug use among racially/ethnically diverse women in Northern California. Women’s Health Issues, 20(3), 211-218. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2010.02.002
  6. Substance abuse prevention dollars and cents: A cost-benefit analysis [PDF]. (2008). Washington, D.C.: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  7. What are the consequences of stereotype threat? (n.d.). Retrieved from
  8. Women, trauma, and PTSD. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Garnet

    April 24th, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    I guess that I have never given anyt hought to these ways that prejudice can impact someone but now that I read it in black and white I get it a little better now than before.

    Before reading this I always thought that you should ignore what others said, but how can you when it can be such a prevalent part of your life every day? When you hear something and are treated poorly every single day of your life those are things that you can’t shake off. They effect you even when you don’t know that they are and I think that this is probably what hurts the most, the realization that you could do better and be better if only someone had taken the time to motivate and lift you.

  • Brennan

    April 25th, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    very surprised that so many of these things stem from prejudice that one has to live with

    have we ever looked at places with high drop out rates, violence, and drug use to see if that seems to be one of the underlying causes there?

  • Sierra

    April 25th, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    I have in particular witnessed kids who feel like they are being belittled and that others don’t expect that much out of them so they come to expect that of themselves.

    It’s sad really to watch someone with so much potential be brought down and believe these things about themselves so that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Others don’t believe in them, they start to think that they are worthless and therefore this is how they perform.

  • elie

    April 26th, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    Prejudice and hatred of any kind can really do a number on you and wreack havoc on how you feel about yourself. In addition think about it can also change what you think about other people too. If someone tells you one thing about you or your culture not only does this demean you but it can lead to hating others because of that closed mindedness as well as lead you to look for someone whom you can perceive is less than you. NOne of us what to be at the bottom so it naturally makes sense to look for others to put down so that we don’t feel like we are at the bottom of the heaping pile.

  • Breck

    April 28th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    How many emplyers are going to look at your job performance and assume that you are doing a less than stellar job because you have been discriminated against?

    Not many.

    I don’t know how many people would even want to use this in the workplace because it makes you seem weak. Hear me out, I am not saying that this makes you weak, but I think that in the eyes of some employers they are going to think this. It could be that this is a battle that you need to figure out how to work out in another way but I would not let my job performance suffer as a result.

  • Colleen

    April 30th, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    Do you think that blatant prejudice affects those with higher levels of self esteem and self confidence in the same way that it will those who already feel bad about themselves? I think that it would have some effect on you no matter who you are but I also think that those who already struggle with seeing themselves in a positive light will have a much more difficult time dealing with the pain that this can cause than those who are feeling good about who they are and have some confidence to spare.

  • Amith

    July 23rd, 2019 at 8:48 AM

    Good read on prejudice

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