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Nancy Schimelpfening

A Paradox Explained

By May 22, 2010

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University of Michigan researchers believe that they have an explanation for a long unexplained paradox: African-Americans in the U.S. tend to be less healthy than their white counterparts, but, at the same time, they tend to have better mental health.

According to  James S. Jackson and his colleague, it's because people who are under chronic stress, which many black Americans tend to be, often self-medicate their depression by smoking, drinking, using drugs or overeating.  These bad habits are harmful to health in the long-run, but trigger biological changes in the short-term which help prevent depression.

"Many black Americans live in chronically precarious and difficult environments," said Jackson.  "These environments produce stressful living conditions, and often the most easily accessible options for addressing stress are various unhealthy behaviors.  These behaviors may alleviate stress through the same mechanisms that are believed to contribute to some mental disorders - the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal cortical axis and related biological systems."

While these behaviors seem to protect against depression in blacks, they may lead  to higher levels of depression in whites, Jackson said.  According to Jackson, these differences are not a result of race, but rather the types of stressors that black Americans face, such as poor  living conditions, lack of job opportunities, poverty and racism and the fact that unhealthy behaviors are the most accessible way that black Americans have of dealing with them.

The article appears in the May 2010 issue of American Journal of Public Health.

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