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Racism linked to drinking problems in Asian American students, new study shows

The research, conducted before the pandemic, found that most participants reported experiencing racism and drinking to cope with higher levels of psychological distress.
Image: Drinks, mixed
Many students reported drinking to cope with the psychological distress caused by the racism they encountered.Chris Hondros / Getty Images file

Racial discrimination may be causing alcohol-related problems among Asian American college students, according to a new research published in the Asian American Journal of Psychology.

The study, which was conducted before the pandemic, surveyed more than 1,400 U.S.-born Asian students at a large Southern California public university with a predominantly Asian student body, and found that a majority of the participants reported experiencing racism and drinking to cope with their elevated levels of psychological distress. (The university was not named in the study.)

“Asian American young adults are just generally overlooked in addiction science literature,” Derek Iwamoto, the lead author and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, told NBC Asian America. “We wanted to identify high-risk groups among Asian Americans.”

The new study uses what is known as the everyday racial discrimination metric to measure students’ experience with racial discrimination (“being treated with less courtesy than others; receiving poorer service than others in restaurants or stores; people acting as if you are not smart”), and the Kessler psychological distress scale to assess the anxiety and depressive symptoms such treatment occasions. The Rutgers alcohol problems index​​ is used to measure alcohol-related problems.

Among the study’s subjects, Iwamoto and his team found, racism has a strong effect on drinking. All students surveyed reported experiencing one incident of racism, and nearly two-thirds reported experiencing at least two. Many reported drinking to cope with the psychological distress caused by these negative experiences. (The sample pool was diverse, representing nine ethnicities and a variety of majors including the physical sciences, psychology, the humanities, education and engineering. Three in four participants are women.)

“If someone is discriminated against,” he continued, “they’ll feel more psychological distress, which in turn can lead to alcohol-related problems.”

Asian Americans have historically reported lower rates of alcohol abuse disorder than other racial cohorts, but advocates say the data obscures notable differences in drinking patterns between people of different ethnic and immigration backgrounds. U.S.-born Asians, for example, consume more alcohol on average than foreign-born Asians.

From 2002 to 2019, the rate of alcohol abuse disorder among Asian American young adults across the country flatlined at about 10 percent, according to trend data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The rates for other racial groups, however, have steadily fallen. For Black Americans, the figure has dropped by half. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, alcohol consumption among young adults spiked, said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  

“One thing we can categorically say is that across all ethnic and racial groups, there’s been an increase in people drinking to cope with stress,” he said. “Racial discrimination definitely contributes to that.”

Iwamoto noted some important limitations to his investigation. The everyday racial discrimination metric is not designed specifically to assess the particulars of the Asian American experience, so a more precise test may be needed to measure anti-Asian racism. And the number of students who reported experiencing racism may have been even higher had the study been conducted during the pandemic rather than before.

The next step, he said, is more longitudinal studies into whether drinking to cope might cause long-term mental and physical health problems. This would require overcoming structural racism in health research: agencies like the National Institutes of Health have historically downplayed the social inequities that Asian American and Pacific Islanders face, feeding into the model minority trope. (Clinical research focused on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the country’s fastest-growing racial group, comprised less than 0.2 percent of the NIH’s total budget, according to a 2019 study in JAMA Network Open.)

“My ultimate goal is to look at drinking patterns and different types of discrimination over time,” he said. “If someone reports more alcohol-related problems over time, do they also report more sleeping problems or more depression over time?”

In the meantime, he said, schools and public health leaders should focus on implementing anti-racism training and substance abuse interventions. 

“We need to do a better job at destigmatizing mental health problems and counseling,” he said, “and to have broader campaigns against Asian hate that bring more awareness about the types of discrimination that we face.”