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New Publication by Sumie Okazaki on the Diversity of COVID-19 Stressors, Discrimination, and Mental Health among Asian American Communities


Sumie Okazaki, professor of applied psychology and IHDSC faculty affiliate, recently published, “Disaggregating the data: Diversity of COVID-19 stressors, discrimination, and mental health among Asian American communities,” in Frontiers in Public Health with Christina Seowoo Lee and Aakriti Prasai, two doctoral students at NYU Steinhardt, and Doris F. Chang, associate professor, and Gahwan Yoo, doctoral student, of NYU’s Silver School of Social Work.

The study investigates the diverse experiences of COVID-19 stressors, discrimination, and mental health among ethnic subgroups of Asian American communities in the United States. Much of the public discourse as well as research regarding the negative impact of COVID-19-related anti-Asian discrimination has been conducted at the broad racial group level, masking critical points of diversity among Asian Americans. Dr. Okazaki and the research team conducted an online survey of 620 Asian American adults in December 2020 and examined whether there were any demographic differences in their experiences of COVID-19-related life stress, direct and vicarious anti-Asian racial discrimination, and psychological outcomes.

The study’s findings illustrate differences by various demographic factors in how Asian Americans experienced the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, 

  • Younger Asian American adults reported experiencing more pandemic-related life stress and racial discrimination and poorer mental health.
  • Female and U.S.-born participants reported higher levels of pandemic life stress and vicarious discrimination, but gender and nativity did not make a difference in how much direct racial discrimination they experienced.
  • Asian American adults who were uninsured also reported higher levels of pandemic stress, discrimination, and distress.
  • Overall, East Asian Americans reported significantly lower frequencies of direct anti-Asian discrimination than did South Asian or Southeast Asian Americans, but the ethnic subgroups did not differ in their reports of vicarious discrimination. Separate analyses of East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian participants revealed that, regardless of ethnicity, racial discrimination significantly contributed to psychological distress and worry beyond the effects of pandemic stress. However, the three groups varied in the demographic indicators and COVID-19 stressors that were associated with psychological outcomes. For example, pandemic life stress was more strongly associated with negative outcomes among South Asian Americans than for East Asian and Southeast Asian Americans. Interesting, even though South Asian Americans reported higher frequencies of direct discrimination, and neither direct nor vicarious discrimination were associated with mental health among South Asian Americans.
  • Direct discrimination, relative to vicarious discrimination, was a particularly robust predictor of poorer mental health among East Asian Americans. 

These findings revealed that the twin pandemic of COVID-19 and anti-Asian racial discrimination during 2020 were experienced differently among various segments of Asian American population, underscoring the importance of disaggregating the data on Asian American populations. The patterns of differences likely reflect the structural and population differences that predated the pandemic, such as the differences in how various Asian American ethnic communities are racialized, the compounding stresses of class inequalities, and so on. 

Sumie Okazaki

Professor of Applied Psychology

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