The Psychological Distress Endured by African American Women With Family Members in Prison

More than half of all African American women in the United States report having at least one family member who is incarcerated. A new study led by Evelyn J. Patterson, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt Univerity in Nashville, finds that this high incarceration rate of family members causes higher levels of depressive symptoms and psychological distress among African American women than previously understood.

The study measured the mental health impact on African American women of having a family member incarcerated. Further, the research examined whether social roles such as employment, marriage or parenthood added to, or eased, the psychological burden of having an immediate family member in jail or prison.

“In all models, familial incarceration was associated with worse psychological adjustment,” the authors wrote. “Our findings showed that familial incarceration was associated with elevated psychological distress and depressive symptomology, extending a long line of studies documenting the consequences of familial incarceration.” Examining role combinations, women who were employed, but had no other social roles showed lower levels of psychological distress and depressive symptoms than women who occupied other roles such as marriage/partnership or motherhood.

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

Dr. Patterson joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University in 2010 after teaching at Pennsylvania State University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in statistics from Rice University in Houston. Dr. Patterson earned a master’s degree in demography and a Ph.D. in criminology and demography from the University of Pennsylvania.

The full paper, “Familial Incarceration, Social Role Combinations, and Mental Health Among African American Women,” was published on the website of the Journal of Marriage and Family. It may be accessed here.

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