Having a family member locked up takes worse mental toll on African American women


Amy McCaig

Having a family member locked up takes worse mental toll on African American women

HOUSTON – (Sept. 2, 2020) – About 44% of African American women in the United States have at least one family member incarcerated, a disproportionate burden that a new study concludes leads to poor mental health.

Photo credit: Getty images/Vanderbilt University

The findings come from a paper in the Journal of Marriage and Family based on research from Vanderbilt University, the University of Connecticut (UConn) and Rice University.

Lead author Evelyn Patterson, associate professor of sociology and a Vanderbilt Chancellor Faculty Fellow, said the study sheds new light on challenges facing African American women. The research also examines whether social roles — such as employment, marriage and parenthood — alter the psychological burden of having an immediate family member behind bars.

“Most studies that look at the impact of incarceration are examining people who are parents or the children of someone who is incarcerated,” Patterson said. “That means if you’re not a parent or a child of an incarcerated person, you’re excluded.”

In fact, sibling incarceration is the most common type of familial incarceration, so Patterson says prior research on this subject has missed a big part of the story. Furthermore, African American women — especially those without children — are rarely the focus of studies on the impact of familial incarceration.

“In all models, familial incarceration was associated with worse psychological adjustment,” according to the paper. “Our findings showed that familial incarceration predicted elevated psychological distress and depressive symptomology, extending a long line of studies documenting the consequences of familial incarceration.”

Women who had jobs but had no other social roles showed lower levels of psychological distress and depressive symptoms than women who also occupied other roles.

“Our study confirms that familial incarceration shows negative psychological consequences for most African American women, consequences not mitigated by occupying normative social roles, which are usually protective,” said Tony Brown, a professor of sociology at Rice and a study co-author. He said the findings imply that the heavy burden of incarceration extends far beyond jail and prison walls.

The study fits into the context of broader research examining how individuals within marginalized communities, and particularly African American families, are less healthy — both physically and psychologically — because of the societal burdens they face.

“From slavery to lynching to incarceration, generations of African American families have endured having their family members taken away,” Patterson said. “African Americans have had to learn how to compartmentalize this trauma and have survived, in part, due to their resilience. But this resilience is a double-edged sword as these experiences worsen health outcomes.”

UConn’s Ryan Talbert was also a co-author of the paper. The study drew from a nationally representative survey of 1,961 African American women who had never been incarcerated.

For more information or to schedule an interview with one of the study authors, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at amym@rice.edu or 713-348-6777.


This news release can be found online at news.rice.edu.

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About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.