Unmasking the ugly effects of discrimination

anna-ziersch-1-croppedDespite various laws, anti-racism campaigns and strategies for social inclusion, stigma and discrimination remain a major problem in Australian society, Flinders University public health researcher Dr Anna Ziersch (pictured) says.

In a bid to uncover the impact of stigma and discrimination on health and wellbeing – and how to protect people from these effects – Dr Ziersch will commence a six-year research program in January 2013.

Funded through a $634,000 grant from the Australian Research Council’s prestigious Future Fellowships scheme, the research  will examine the way stigma and discrimination prevent people from being included in society, in the wider aim of developing or improving policies to help aid inclusion and wellbeing.

Dr Ziersch said she would look at how the negative effects of stigma and discrimination transpire by researching peoples’ experiences in different contexts, such as employment, housing and neighbourhoods, and include a comparative survey of 2000 South Australians as well as a review of the various legislations to examine “how they work on the ground”.

“People who report discrimination usually have worse health but we don’t know precisely how that comes about,” Dr Ziersch, based at Flinders Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity, said.

“Is it a physical response to the stress of discrimination, is their health suffering because they’re not accessing services, do they miss out on important social relationships, are they using drugs or alcohol to cope with the feelings of being alienated, or is it a result of physical violence?

“We know some of these things are relevant to different groups but we want to look systematically at the similarities and differences across these groups.”

Working closely with policymakers and practitioners through the life of the project, Dr Ziersch said she hoped to stimulate debate and influence existing policies.

“A key aim of the research is to improve the way organisations interpret the laws surrounding discrimination,” she said.

“I want people to think beyond just having a Harmony Day or cultural policy in place but to look at how they’re running their organisations to better address the issue.”

Dr Ziersch said stigma and discrimination was a serious problem for many Australians.

“Stigma and discrimination are strongly linked to mental health but there’s also a strong social inclusion aspect – it might affect participation in education, sports, the community and it can lead to distrust in the institutions such as the police, health services and government,” she said.

“In one of our studies of 153 Aboriginal people in metropolitan Adelaide, 93 per cent said they sometimes experienced racism and almost two thirds said it was a regular feature of their lives, indicating this is a serious problem for those people.

“We’ve also had on the ground reports that refugees are facing discrimination in getting private housing, and discrimination in the workforce is a continuing issue for many employees.”

Dr Ziersch was one of three Flinders researchers to win a 2012 Future Fellowship, an annual program which supports and creates opportunities for highly qualified mid-career researchers.

The trio will share in a pool of $2.18 million, with the 2012 round seeing a total 209 Fellowships worth $151 million awarded nationally.

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