Racial disparities in mental health outcomes: Possible explanations for unexpected advantages among African American adolescents


Dr. Cynthia Colen, Department of Sociology
Rank at time of award: Assistant Professor


The objective of this study is to better understand the racial patterning of mental health among African- Americans and Whites in the United States, with a particular focus on adolescents. This period of the lifecourse represents a time when individuals are establishing identities and relationships that are likely to shape future trajectories concerning educational, occupational, and health-related consequences. Specifically, I will investigate the extent to which demographic (ie. racial and socioeconomic) characteristics of an individual’s friendship network impact the likelihood of developing suboptimal psychological functioning. Thus, this research effort explicitly investigates linkages between individuals and their social context and how these connections facilitate or inhibit subsequent mental wellbeing. Doing so will contribute to existing health disparities research by (1) widening the focus of this knowledge base to include mental as well as physical health outcomes; (2) examining paradoxical outcomes for which disease rates among African-Americans are similar to or better than those among Whites; and (3) shifting the emphasis from a purely individualistic approach toward one in which interactions between individuals and the social environments is emphasized.

Publications resulting from this seed grant

Colen, Cynthia G., Nicolo P. Pinchak*, Kierra S. Barnett*. 2020. "Racial Disparities in Health among College Educated African Americans: Can HBCU Attendance Reduce the Risk of Metabolic Syndrome in Midlife?" American Journal of Epidemiology. 

Colen, Cynthia G., Qi Li*, Corinne Reczek, David Williams. 2020. "The Intergenerational Transmission of Discrimination: Children’s Experiences of Unfair Treatment and Their Mothers’ Health at Midlife". Journal of Health and Social Behavior 60:474-492.

Zhang, Zhe Z.*, Corinne Reczek, Cynthia G. Colen. 2020. Intergenerational Coresidence and Mothers’ Body Weight at Midlife. Forthcoming in Population Research and Policy Review. 

2018. Colen, C.G., Krueger, P.M. and Boettner, B.L. Do rising tides lift all boats? Racial disparities in health across the lifecourse among middle-class African-Americans and Whites. SSM-population health, 6, pp.125-135.PMCID: PMC6153271

2018. Colen, Cynthia G., David M. Ramey*, Elizabeth C. Cooksey, David R. Williams. Racial Disparities in Health among Nonpoor African Americans and Hispanics: The Role of Acute and Chronic Discrimination. Social Science & Medicine 199:167-180.  PMCID: PMC5673593

2016. Colen, C.G., Ramey, D.M. and Browning, C.R. Declines in Crime and Teen Childbearing: Identifying Potential Explanations for Contemporaneous Trends. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, pp. 1-30.  PMCID:PMC5040460

2014. Colen, C.G., Ramey, D.M., Is Breast Truly Best? Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling Comparisons, Social Science & Medicine. May;109:55 65. PMCID: PMC4077166

2014. Clouston, Sean A.P., Marcie S. Rubin, Cynthia G. Colen, Bruce G. Link. Social Inequalities in Suicide: The Role of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. American Journal of Epidemiology 180:696-704.