The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

More Valuable than a Degree or Big Paycheck

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Progressive commentators regard psychological distress among African-American men as the consequence of adverse financial and educational circumstances. However, a study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California suggests—contrary to sociologists who insist that patterns found in the general population do not apply to minority populations—that a strong home life may count for more among this population than do financial or educational advantages. According to this study, not a college degree or a big paycheck but rather an intact marriage gives African-American men the best bulwark against mental illness, while a failed marriage is most likely to expose them to lasting depression.

After analyzing data from a nationally representative sample of African-American men, the Michigan and Southern Cal researchers conclude: “Marital status was associated with depressive symptoms and both 12-month and lifetime MDD [major depressive disorder] in our study. Separated African American men had more depressive symptoms than those who were married; those who were previously married (i.e., separated, divorced, or widowed) had greater odds of having 12-month and lifetime MDD than those who were currently married.”

“Among the marital status groups,” the researchers explain, “separated/divorced/widowed respondents had greater odds of having 12-month MDD than their married counterparts.” A similar pattern emerged when the researchers analyzed data for lifetime prevalence of MDD. The researchers calculate that separated, divorced, and widowed African-American men in the study were almost three times as likely as married peers to have suffered from MDD during the last twelve months (Odds Ratio, 2.75). The differential for lifetime prevalence of MDD was almost identical (Odds Ratio, 2.77). The data also indicate that MDD develops more often among never-married African-American men for both twelve-month and lifetime prevalence than it does among their married peers (Odds Ratios of 2.31 and 1.54 respectively). However, because the Confidence Intervals fall below one for these comparisons, they cannot be regarded as statistically significant.

While identifying marital status as a significant predictor of psychological distress, the researchers report that “income and education were not significantly related to 12-month or lifetime MDD” in their study (emphasis added). The researchers understandably note: “The current findings are consistent with evidence indicating a protective effect of marriage on mental health among the general population.” Going further, they suggest that their findings shed light on “the influence of marital status on mental health among African American men” because they verify the thinking of colleagues who have “hypothesized that marriage may be protective via its effects on SES [socioeconomic status] and social support,” since “marriage may protect against economic hardship and also provide greater opportunities for emotionally satisfying interactions.”

The findings of this study certainly give researchers reasons to suppose that “universal approaches to prevention and mental health interventions may not be optimal,” since it now appears that “an African American man with low levels of education and income but who is employed and married will require a very different intervention strategy than one who is divorced and unemployed, but has higher levels of education and income.”

Indeed, important implications flow from the fact that this study finds that marital status predicts psychological well-being among African-American men while neither income nor education do. Perhaps it is time to push wedlock to the top of a “mental health promotion agenda that recognizes the importance of improving access to education and employment and promoting healthy coping behaviors.”

(Karen D. Lincoln et al., “Correlates of Psychological Distress and Major Depressive Disorder Among African American Men,” Research on Social Work Practice 21.3 [May 2011]: 278–88.)