The Associations Between COVID-19-Related Direct and Vicarious Racial Discrimination and Psychological Distress Among U.S. College Students

Anjeli Macaranas, BA Candidate

Brigham and Women’s Hospital – Undergraduate Research Assistant

Scientific Abstract

Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a myriad of racist incidents targeting minority groups in the U.S. Combined with an elevated risk of directly experiencing pandemic-related discrimination, college students often witness such traumatic encounters on the news and social media. Our study examined the associations between both direct and vicarious racial discrimination and severe psychological distress among a college demographic and to compare these results across multiple racial groups.

Methods: Our study analyzed 88,544 undergraduate and graduate students who participated in the Spring 2021 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA). Logistic regression analysis examined the odds of exhibiting severe psychological distress — measured via the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6) — predicted by either direct or vicarious racism. Covariates included age, race, sexual orientation, student status, international/citizenship status, and prior mental health diagnosis.

Results: Within the total sample, both direct and vicarious racism significantly predicted increased odds of severe psychological distress, even after controlling for covariates. Upon stratifying by race, there was a significant association between direct discrimination and psychological distress among Asian (AOR: 1.4, p < 0.001), Hispanic (AOR: 1.7, p < 0.001), Multiracial (AOR: 1.5, p < 0.001), and White (AOR: 1.3, p < 0.01) respondents. Vicarious discrimination significantly predicted psychological distress among White (AOR: 1.5, p < 0.001), Asian (AOR: 1.4, p < 0.001), Hispanic (AOR: 1.6, p < 0.001), Middle Eastern (AOR: 1.5, p < 0.001), and Multiracial (AOR: 1.4, p < 0.001) participants.

Conclusions: While our findings reveal an overall link between both direct and vicarious racial discrimination and distress, Asian, Hispanic, Multiracial, and White participants in our sample are shown to be particularly vulnerable to racism-related distress. Further studies are needed to understand the differential experiences of racial groups when confronted with discrimination and to develop informed interventions, particularly for university students.

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research Areas


Anjeli R. Macaranas, Abdelrahman ElTohamy, MD, Sunah Hyun, PhD, Courtney Stevens, PhD, Justin A. Chen, MD, MPH, Cindy H. Liu, PhD

Principal Investigator

Cindy H. Liu, PhD

Affiliated Website