This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Lisa Diamond set out to understand and quantify a feeling that many people struggle to describe.
It’s a feeling she became well acquainted with during the pandemic: a low-level sense of unease. It’s not quite full-blown stress. It’s not an emotional response to a direct attack, but more the discomfort of wondering: Am I safe? Do these people care about me? Would they protect me?
“The feeling of being uncertain and unprotected was not the same feeling as stress,” Diamond realized. “It was a different sort of feeling, a kind of deeper form of chronic vigilance, watchfulness and wariness.”
The pandemic brought these feelings out in a lot of people. Diamond, a distinguished professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, is interested in understanding how marginalized communities experience that sense of unease.
For those communities, including women of color, those who identify as LGBTQ, and racial/ethnic minorities, feelings of uncertainty did not begin and will not end with the global pandemic.
In a new research and policy brief from the Utah Women & Leadership Project titled “Safety First: The Health Implications of Social Belonging Among Utah Women,” Diamond examines Utah women’s experiences with “social safety, marginalization, and health.”
She questioned how people feel at work, at school, or with family. Diamond also researched how mental and physical health is harmed when people don’t have support in those environments. Diamond notes in the brief that over the past few decades researchers “have documented disproportionately high mental and physical health problems among individuals who are socially marginalized,” but haven’t accounted for the stress experienced by those who don’t necessarily experience “overt” instances of discrimination.
Diamond’s research is startling — more than 45% of Utah women reported they felt “chronic unsafety,” at some point in their lives.
“Chronic hyper-vigilance,” Diamond argues, “takes a heavy toll on a person’s mental and physical health over time, increasing individuals’ risks for rumination, depressive symptoms, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and immune system dysfunction.”
If Utah wants to improve the wellbeing of women in the state, making them feel safer will be key.
“It shows more and more the need for specific efforts that help more people feel included,” said Susan Madsen, the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, “[efforts] that help more people feel like they belong in a society and businesses, in organizations, in schools and in universities.”
Asking the right questions
Diamond calls it “social safety:” The sense of the wellbeing we get when we feel cared for. Social safety is feeling like you have a “reliable social connection, inclusion, and protection,” within a group. In its simplest form, it can be the relief felt when you drop something in the grocery store and someone thoughtfully picks it up for you, Diamond said.
But she couldn’t just ask Utahns “when do you feel socially unsafe?” Quantifying absence can be tricky.
So Diamond and some of her students came up with a list of questions to get at the matter. The online survey tool Qualtrics gathered responses from Nov. 2022 to Jan. 16, 2023. Both women and men responded to the survey, and there was “a higher representation of individuals facing ethnic or economic marginalization,” in the sample. Ultimately the responses of 398 Utah women were examined for the policy brief.
They asked respondents to consider their feelings when at home, with friends, with family, at work, at school, in public spaces and on social media. The survey included questions on 14 different “indicators” including “do you feel like you matter to these people?” And, “do you feel so comfortable that you don’t notice time passing?”
The survey also asked respondents “whether they had ever been repeatedly exposed to an environment where they risked being mistreated, shamed, hurt, or pressured to do something they did not want to do.”
Along with finding that such a high percentage of Utah women had experienced “chronic unsafety,” Diamond found that women who were “unmarried, non-heterosexual/non-cisgender, had very low incomes, experienced adult assault or childhood abuse, or had been suicidal” experienced the phenomenon at the highest rates.
Chronic unsafety can result from not knowing if someone will insult or shame you on a given day. “When we think of the word abuse, we normally think of physical abuse,” Diamond said.
The vigilance that accompanies feeling uncertain doesn’t just leave psychological scarring — it activates our immune systems and can cause long-term damage, according to Diamond.
Individual and political solutions
The results of Diamond’s research confirmed a hunch — that promoting “social ties that make people feel that they matter to those around them” was important and communities needed to do more than just eradicate direct instances of abuse.
We can increase social safety by showing people in our community that we accept and care for them, Diamond said. Simple things like making eye contact with others can help. “I am so aware now that all of us, even if we have some form of marginalization ourselves, have the capacity to offer a little safety to anyone around us,” Diamond said.
Policy is also important. “Things like the ban on gender affirming care are the antithesis of [social safety],” Diamond said. “When individuals see their leaders taking actions that either provide or rob them of protections, those affect their everyday sense of social safety.”
Our brains want a signal that the community around us will protect us, Diamond said. Certain laws and policies have the opposite effect, sending signals to our brains and ultimately our bodies.
“There are these subtle things that we all rely on to make us feel that we matter to the people around us,” Diamond said. “That we are visible and cared about, and a part of this human social fabric.”
She’s currently researching ways that LGBTQ individuals who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints find support and community. The survey will remain open until April.
Madsen said effective unconscious bias training, better data collection and providing extra support to kids in marginalized communities could all help.
“To me,” Madsen said, “this research means that we need to do more, not less.”