Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Shardé McNeil Smith, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Dr. Smith examines the impact of racial discrimination on mental health outcomes, and the supportive resources used to combat these effects, within the African American family context. She seeks to reduce mental health stigma, foster healthy family relationships, and ultimately contribute to the reduction in existing racial health disparities. Dr. Smith is a member of the Community Healing and Resistance Through Storytelling (C-HeARTS) Collaborative and served as a faculty mentor to IHSI’s first cohort of Health Equity Scholars.
Q: What is your research in health disparities about?
My research aims to elucidate the complex ways that racism is a social determinant of mental health. I explore how the negative effects of racism are transmitted within African American families and communities. A primary finding of my work is that when someone experiences racial discrimination, it influences not only his or her own health but the mental and behavioral health of other family members. Furthermore, my work explores how racism can disrupt one’s sense of belonging because of the trauma and dehumanization it brings to African American youth and families within communities. Although it is clear that racism has negative effects on health and well-being, my research also highlights resilience within African American families. In particular, my research has examined how African American parents’ racial discrimination experiences influence how they talk to their children about race and the degree to which family social support can ameliorate the negative effects of racial discrimination within the parent-child and romantic couple subsystems.
Q: How are you conducting your research?
To increase our understanding of how racism is a social determinant of mental health, I utilize both survey data and focus group interviews. A primary research approach I use is a dyadic research design where I gain perspectives and measures from two individuals in close relationships (e.g., parent-child and romantic couples). I account for their interdependence utilizing data analytic techniques such as the actor-partner interdependence model (APIM). The APIM allows me to examine how an individual’s racial discrimination experiences influence their own and their family members’ mental and behavioral health. In my community-based research, conducted as part of an interdisciplinary team, we utilize focus groups and digital storytelling methods to gather rich stories from community members about healing from the effects of racial trauma. Our community partners are a vital and integral part of this research process as they dedicate their expertise, time, and efforts to build a sense of community and create ways to reduce health disparities.
Q: How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
My scholarship on racism and mental health has been immensely supported by the Illinois community at both the department and campus levels. I have received numerous opportunities to build and enhance my program of research including being able to design and teach a course on African American health and wellness, receiving internal grant funding to support my research and interdisciplinary collaborations, and attending multiple workshops and seminars across campus for my professional development. I have also established relationships with faculty, students, and community members that have been transformative both personally and professionally. It is through their lived experiences that I find purpose and drive to continue my research.
Q: How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
It is my hope that my research on the experience and impact of racism highlights the value of moving beyond individual mental health to consider individuals in the contexts of families, communities, and society. I also envision my work dismantling the conceptualization of African Americans as a monolithic group by demonstrating the considerable heterogeneity existing within African American families and communities. I believe my program of research can contribute to the improvement of culturally-relevant and contextually-informed mental health assessments and family-level prevention and intervention efforts for African American families.
Q: Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I attribute my interest in this area of study to the day that I realized what it meant to be Black in America and that my skin color affected how people saw me. It was a day when racial slurs were hurled at me and I was told to go back to where I came from. That day I felt angry, sad, unsafe, attacked and confused. I soon realized that a day like that would not be the last. Thus, I made it a point to seek out support from others who valued me and recognized my worth. Although these experiences were psychologically demanding, it was the unconditional emotional support from my family and my close relationships with peers and mentors that encouraged me and provided me with a sense of belonging. I valued these connections and jumped at the opportunities throughout my academic career to further understand how these positive connections can promote one’s health in a society filled with racial injustices.