The common stereotype of Asian American adolescents as “model minorities” not only homogenizes a diverse population but often obscures recognition of discrimination as a salient factor affecting their psychological well-being. Cambodian Americans challenge the model minority stereotype in many ways, facing numerous barriers to educational attainment and economic mobility. Studies including Cambodian American adolescents often involve gang involvement, delinquency, and poor academic outcomes. Moreover, little is known about the mental health of second-generation Cambodian Americans, despite chronic mental illness documented among many first-generation Cambodian refugees.
The purpose of this study is to examine perceptions of racial discrimination among Cambodian American adolescents and their influence on mental health, namely depression. In addition, the analysis will examine the role of ethnic identity in buffering or exacerbating the influence of perceived racial discrimination. The following primary research questions in a sample of Cambodian American adolescents will be examined: (1) What is the relationship between perceived racial discrimination, ethnic identity, and depression? (2) Does ethnic identity moderate the association between perceived racial discrimination and depression?
Methods: Data come from the Khmer Youth Study (KYS), a survey of Cambodian American adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 that was conducted between 2009-2010 in Long Beach, California (n=312). The study's variables include: depressive symptoms, perceived racial discrimination, ethnic identity, and demographic characteristics (gender, age, subjective social status, family economic status, Khmer language proficiency). Multiple regression analysis examined the association between racial discrimination and ethnic identity on depression, and the moderating role of ethnic identity was examined via interaction effects (racial discrimination x ethnic identity).
Results: Net of covariates, racial discrimination was positively associated with depressive symptoms. Additionally, ethnic identity buffered the association between racial discrimination and depressive symptoms, such that adolescents who experienced racial discrimination with higher levels of ethnic identification had lower levels of depressive symptoms compared to adolescents with lower levels of ethnic identification (β=-1.83, p<.05). Conclusions and implications: This study highlights the influence of racial discrimination and ethnic identity on the mental health of Cambodian American adolescents, an at-risk but understudied population. These findings inform social work research, practice and policy by calling attention to structural as well as sociocultural influences on the mental health of racial and ethnic minority adolescents. In particular, efforts to address adolescents' experiences with racial discrimination may reduce negative outcomes related to mental health and well-being. Efforts to strengthen ethnic identity may present promising strategies to counteract discrimination's effects for Cambodian American adolescents.