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Psychology professor and NIH-funded research team to study how racial discrimination affects adolescent Asian Americans’ mental health

Author: Beth Staples

Peggy Wang
Lijuan (Peggy) Wang

Hate crimes, discrimination, and harassment against Asian Americans in the United States have risen rapidly in recent years, and Notre Dame psychologist Lijuan (Peggy) Wang wants to know how that has impacted adolescents and what factors can be leveraged to protect and promote their mental health.

“Asian American parents and children are struggling with a deeply troubling new sociopolitical context, a context with unprecedented levels of anti-Asian hate and violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wang, a professor in the Department of Psychology

To lay the groundwork for building evidence-based and urgently needed interventions, Wang is part of a research team developing the first longitudinal study to fill research gaps and learn about how racial discrimination affects adolescent Asian Americans’ mental health. 

Funded by a National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant (R01), the five-year research project — titled “Discrimination and racial socialization on Asian American parent and youth mental health” — will involve 350 Chinese American adolescents from the Boston area, as well as their Chinese heritage parent and a peer. 

The research team will observe, survey, and interview participants and measure hair cortisol (a biomarker of chronic stress) to assess the effects of discrimination on mental health, including depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and the risk of suicide among the teens over three years. 

In addition, the collaborative project will incorporate parent-adolescent and peer-adolescent discussion tasks to study how parents, peers, and social media racially socialize Asian American adolescents — that is, how they transmit information and beliefs, both implicit and explicit, about race and discrimination in the broader societal context.

The project will provide the unique opportunity for Chinese Americans families to talk in a meaningful way about current topics — such as racism — that affect Asian Americans. Wang said the findings will be utilized in three ways: to identify common struggles of Chinese American adolescents and their parents; to develop interventions to address specific needs of the families; and to provide recommendations for prevention policies and programs to mitigate the detrimental mental health effects of discrimination.

“Asian American parents and children are struggling with a deeply troubling new sociopolitical context, a context with unprecedented levels of anti-Asian hate and violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.’”

As a quantitative psychologist, Wang will contribute to the study by developing, evaluating, and applying cutting-edge statistical models and research methodology in order to better understand the psychological processes involved. Notre Dame psychology Ph.D. students will contribute to the study by analyzing the longitudinal multi-method data using advanced quantitative methods.

“I am grateful that I can use my expertise to uncover psychological processes and help develop and evaluate intervention programs to improve the mental health of human beings,” Wang said. 

The study team includes Cindy Liu, principal investigator, at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Tiffany Yip at Fordham University; Linda Charmaraman at Wellesley Centers for Women; and Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm at Boston University. Consultants are Shirley Yen at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, and Richard Lee at the University of Minnesota.