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Enviromental Invalidations Influence Suicide Ideation Through Thwarted Belongingness in American Indians

Enviromental Invalidations Influence Suicide Ideation Through Thwarted Belongingness in American Indians

Katelynn Pipestem


Background: Rates of suicide in the United States are the highest in nearly 30 years, with American Indians (AIs) experiencing the largest increases over time (89% for women and 38% for men; Curtin et al., 2016). Although scholars agree that blatant racism has decreased since the 1960s (e.g., Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004), contemporary forms of racism and discrimination may persist by way of racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions (RMs) are verbal, behavioral, and environmental slights or insults delivered to persons of color because of their physical features and perceived association with ethnic/racial minority groups (Sue et al., 2007). There are six dimensions of racial microaggressions, including invisibility (feeling devalued or ignored), criminality (stereotyped as a criminal or threatening), low-achieving/undesirable culture (viewed as incompetent, dysfunctional, success is due to unfair advantage), sexualization (oversexualized or eroticized), foreigner/not belonging (viewed as an immigrant or not a “true” American), and environmental invalidations (negative environmental messages about an individual’s race; Torres-Harding, Andrade, & Romero Diaz, 2012). Although RMs may appear harmless, previous research has demonstrated the contrary. Recently, O’Keefe and colleagues (2015) demonstrated a positive relationship between RMs and suicide ideation in a sample of ethnic minority members. They also found that RMs had an indirect effect on suicide ideation through symptoms of depression. O’Keefe and colleagues (2015) suggested that further research is needed to examine potential mechanisms of the relationship between RMs and suicide. The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (ITS; Joiner, 2005) is a well-validated model of suicide risk which posits that people are at risk for a near lethal or lethal suicide attempt during the co-occurrence of two interpersonal factors: perceived burdensomeness, the perception that one is ineffective in life and a burden on others, and thwarted belongingness, feelings of social disconnection and isolation. Although Hollingsworth and colleagues (in press) recently investigated the relationship between RMs, suicide ideation, and the ITS in a sample of African Americans, this is the first study to examine these relationships in a sample exclusively comprised of American Indians – an ethnic group with one of the highest rates of death by suicide.

Specifically, it was hypothesized that perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness would each mediate the relationship between the six racial microaggression dimensions and suicide ideation. Six mediation analyses with two mediators and 5,000 bootstrapping samples were conducted using PROCESS (Hayes, 2013) to test the study hypotheses.

Method: Participants were recruited using an online research system from a large, Midwestern university. The current sample included 127 self-identified American Indian (AI) college students, 88 females (69.3%) and 39 males (30.7%), who represented 23 different AI tribes. Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 48 (M = 20.07). Participants completed the following self-report measures online: a demographics questionnaire that assessed for age, sex, and ethnicity; the Racial Microaggressions Scale (RMAS; Torres-Harding, Andrade, & Diaz, 2012) that assessed for the six dimensions of racial microaggressions (invisibility, criminality, low-achieving/undesirable culture, sexualization, foreigner/not belonging, and environmental invalidations); the Interpersonal Needs Questionnaire-15 (INQ-15; Van Orden, Cukrowicz, Witte, & Joiner, 2012) which assessed for the two interpersonal constructs of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness; and the Hopelessness-Depression Symptom Questionnaire-Suicidality Subscale (HDSQ-SS; Metalsky & Joiner, 1997) which assessed for suicide ideation. Participants were compensated with course credit for their participation in the study. All procedures were in compliance with the University Human Subjects Research Office.

Results: Hypotheses were partially supported. Bootstrapping estimates indicated that the racial microaggressions dimension of environmental invalidations had an indirect effect on suicide ideation through thwarted belongingness (point estimate = 0.201, BCa = 0.0003 to 0.0713), but not perceived burdensomeness (point estimate = 0.0018, BCa = -0.0217 to 0.0185). The remaining five mediations were non-significant.

Conclusions: Results imply that for American Indians (AIs), experiencing negative environmental messages about one’s race (environmental invalidations) is associated with increased feelings of thwarted belongingness, which in turn may be associated with increased thoughts of suicide. Clinical implications include assessing whether AI clients are experiencing negative environmental messages about their race. For American Indians, environmental invalidations may occur by way of racialized mascots. Racialized mascots (e.g., Chief Wahoo) often portray dehumanizing and demeaning stereotypes of American Indians, and continue to persist despite evidence that these images are discriminatory and detrimental to American Indians’ mental health (Clark et al., 2011; Fryberg et al., 2008; Kim-Prieto et al., 2010; LaRocque, 2004). Future research should investigate whether there is a relationship between the exposure to/awareness of racialized mascots and suicide risk for American Indians. Broader societal implications involve conducting workshops and seminars to acknowledge experiences of racial microaggressions, as well as educating the general public on the existence of these verbal, behavioral, and environmental racial slights, with the hope to decrease their occurrence.