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Institute for Health Care Policy and Aging Research

Project L/EARN News and Events » Faculty Chat: Dawne Mouzon on the race paradox in mental health

Faculty Chat: Dawne Mouzon on the race paradox in mental health

Professor Jocelyn Elise Crowley recently sat down for a chat with Dawne Mouzon, an assistant professor who joined the Bloustein School faculty in September 2011. Trained as a medical sociologist, she studies race/class/gender disparities in physical and mental health, with a special emphasis on the role of social relationships in either ameliorating or reproducing these patterns. She is also affiliated with the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research at Rutgers University. This fall she taught the Methods of Planning Analysis I graduate course; in the spring she will teach an undergraduate course Epidemiology as well as a graduate seminar in Mental Health Policy.

EJB: How did you get interested in the field of mental health outcomes?
Professor Mouzon: My motivation to study mental health was due to the stigma of mental illness in many Black communities. As a teenager, I had family members that clearly suffered from serious mental illness, yet they — and their spouses and children — refused to admit having these problems. They were viewed as having a personal weakness. As a result, they never received treatment, which had tremendous emotional, legal, and financial consequences. So although my initial interest in mental health was piqued from personal experience, it was strongly fueled in graduate school, when I learned of some unexpected findings regarding race and mental health in the literature.

EJB: Some of your work focuses on the “race paradox in mental health.” What is this paradox? How does your work help inform our understanding of this paradox?
Professor Mouzon:The “race paradox in mental health” refers to the unexpected finding that Blacks generally have better mental health than Whites, despite their less favorable social standing in the United States. This finding runs counter to what we would expect based on the socioeconomic gradient in health, which finds that those of lower socioeconomic standing have worse health outcomes. The race paradox in mental health also contradicts what we know from the health disparities literature — that Blacks have worse physical health than Whites on an array of indicators including higher mortality, higher prevalence of many chronic conditions, and lower life expectancy.

My research program seeks to identify causal mechanisms to explain this anomaly. Most scholars attribute this anomaly to the belief that Blacks have more supportive family relationships than Whites. My most recent paper finds minimal differences in the quantity and quality of family relationships between Whites and Blacks. Moreover, these differences could not explain the race paradox in mental health. In separate papers, I consider whether other social relationships, such as friendships, fictive kin relationships, and relationships with church members, explain the race paradox in mental health.

EJB: Another intriguing line of research inquiry explores the impact of marriage on mental health. What does your work have to say about this relationship?
Early research on the relationship between social ties and health found marriage to be protective for physical and mental health. Subsequent sociological research has suggested that marriage was not as beneficial for the mental health of women as men due to the “burden of caring,” although later research refuted these findings. I build upon this body of research by using national data from the Midlife Development in the United States series to examine the relative mental health benefits of marriage for four race/gender groups —African American men, African American women, White men, and White women.

I find marriage to be extremely beneficial for the mental health of White men and White women, but a very weak protective association between marriage and mental health for African American women and no significant association at all for African American men. These findings demonstrate the importance of considering social context in health research and have important implications for uniform marriage promotion policies.

EJB: Tell me about your future research projects in these areas.
I have three projects under development. One is a collaborative project with Cherise Harris of Connecticut College that examines the process of alternative family formations among Black middle-class women. Because of disproportionately higher incarceration rates of Black men (relative to White men) and lower relative educational attainment of Black men (relative to Black women), many educated Black women find themselves facing a shortage of available and/or marriageable romantic partners. We will use a mixed-methods approach to study how Black middle-class women face the reality of this “marriage squeeze” and its implication for fertility, companionship, and caregiving across the life course.

My other two projects focus on the Black middle class health paradox. There is emerging evidence that attaining middle class status does not offer the same mental health benefits for Blacks as Whites. These preliminary findings suggest a unique set of stressors that exist for the Black middle class, relative to the White middle class. In one paper, I aim to identify the prevalence of acute and chronic stressors across various intersections of race, social class, and gender.

A related paper focuses on goal-striving stress, which has been defined as the “discrepancy between aspirations and achievements, hard work and accomplishments, options and opportunities (Sellers and Neighbors, 1999).” To the extent that Black middle class individuals experience discrimination in the labor force and other social institutions, these factors could reduce the mental health gains that would otherwise be afforded as one ascends the social ladder. Therefore, this mechanism could explain why Black middle class individuals may have lower-than-expected mental health status.

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