Smoking And Drinking Fight Depression

Newsflash: people smoke, drink, and overeat because it feels good. These behaviors may even stave off depression, but don't be fooled: they'll still kill you. Especially, apparently, if you're black.

All this information is contained, albeit rather confusingly, in a ScienceDaily press release whose first paragraph is a staggering combination of no-shit and oh-shit:

When people are under chronic stress, they tend to smoke, drink, use drugs and overeat to help cope with stress. These behaviors trigger a biological cascade that helps prevent depression, but they also contribute to a host of physical problems that eventually contribute to early death.

While this opener seems general, the study it references actually refers specifically to African-American health. This study, led by social scientist James Jackson of the University of Michigan, purports to "explain a long-time epidemiological puzzle: why African Americans have worse physical health than whites but better psychiatric health." Jackson did come up with an interesting finding: while unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, and overeating make white people more depressed in stressful situations, they appear to lessen depression in black populations. The study's claim is that if black people turn to bad habits in stressful situations, they do so because they work — at least until they begin to "have direct and debilitating effects on physical health."

Jackson draws some related conclusions about obesity, which apparently affects 60% of black women in their 40s:

How can it be that 60 percent of the population has a character flaw? Overeating is an effective, early, well-learned response to chronic environmental stressors that only strengthens over the life course.

On the one hand, it's worthwhile to remember that people, regardless of race, often in engage in "bad" habits because they have some good effects — things that are bad for you often make you feel better, at least temporarily. But it's not clear why black people should experience these could affect more intensely than white people, and really, the study coverage raises lots of questions. First of all, did Jackson consider potential underdiagnosis, and cultural and class differences in mental health access, before making the claim that black people have better psychiatric health than whites? Did he consider the fact that obesity isn't always caused by overeating? The press release also includes a number of generalizations, like this bit about black men:

Early in life, they tend to be physically active and athletic, which produces the stress-lowering hormone dopamine. But in middle age, physical deterioration reduces the viability and effectiveness of this way of coping with stress, and black men turn in increasing numbers to unhealthy coping behaviors, showing increased rates of smoking, drinking and illicit drug use.

It's possible that the study's full text includes demographic data to back up these assertions, but in abridged form they verge into stereotype. This is unfortunate because Jackson's core recommendation is a good one: instead of railing against people's unhealthy behaviors, eliminate the stresses that give rise to them. Jackson says,

You can't really study physical health without looking at people's mental health and really their whole lives. The most effective way to address an important source of physical health disparities is to reduce environmentally produced stressors — both those related to race and those that are not. We need to improve living conditions, create good job opportunities, eliminate poverty and improve the quality of inner-city urban life.

This whole paragraph is a great response to the blame-and-judgment-inflected mainstream coverage of obesity, and indeed, of health problems in general — if only the rest of the press release were so clear.

Good Results Of Bad Habits? Research Explains Paradox [ScienceDaily]