The child clinical psychologist explains barriers to mental health in Latinx communities and what can be done to overcome them
American youth, in general, are facing a mental health crisis—but young people of color are especially vulnerable to mental health challenges (APA Working Group for Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Youth Mental Health (PDF, 2.1MB), 2017).
The problem is particularly pronounced among Latinx youth, or young people of Latin American descent. Data published in 2017 (PDF, 289KB) suggest that 20% of Latinx youth experience depression; current events compound an already troubling baseline. “The increase in deportations over the past several years, coupled with anti-immigrant rhetoric, has had a drastic impact on the mental health of Latinx youth,” said Gabriela Livas Stein, PhD, a professor and department head of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and principal investigator of the Caminos Lab, which conducts community-engaged research on Latinx youth and families.
In a recent study, Stein and her colleagues found that a third of their sample showed clinical symptoms of both depression and anxiety, a notable increase from past research (Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, under review). The Monitor asked Stein about her ongoing research on the complex factors affecting the mental health of Latinx youth—and what psychology suggests are the most effective methods for bolstering their resilience.
What unique barriers to mental health do Latinx youth face?
In states with more anti-immigrant policies, we see Latinx families with increased anxiety and depression symptoms. Deportations also pose a big risk: Kids who have experienced a close family member being reported face greater symptoms of substance use and suicidality.
In Latinx cultures, there are also stigmas around mental health care or even talking about mental health. Kids don’t want to burden their families with their problems because they feel a sense of duty to honor their parents’ sacrifices.
This mindset can lead to a sort of high-functioning depression. Latinx youth, especially Mexican American kids, tend to keep pushing to get ahead and honor their parents’ sacrifices even if they’re struggling emotionally. But family values of loyalty, support, cohesion, and warmth can also have protective effects on Latinx youth and adults, driving a sense of purpose and leading to fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, less externalizing behavior, and greater academic behaviors (Journal of Family Issues, Vol. 36, No. 10, 2013).
What kinds of interventions are most effective in preventing mental illness in Latinx youth?
Schools, after-school environments, and community organizations can play a role in promoting resilience among Latinx youth. One way to support kids is by learning about and honoring their values when inviting families to participate in these settings. This lessens the cultural mismatch, when kids feel torn between two sets of expectations and norms.
Specific to mental health, these spaces can help Latinx youth and their families face challenges by teaching them the skills to cope with stress. It’s also effective to normalize conversations about distress, teaching kids that they can honor their parents and still seek out help for themselves.
What role do psychologists play in improving the mental health of Latinx youth?
Latinx youth make up a quarter of Americans who are younger than 18, so psychologists should avail themselves of research that can help them understand the strengths and difficulties of these communities. There continues to be a shortage of Spanish-speaking providers; if you have some Spanish skills, continue to develop these and use them in your practice.
Reach out to Latinx communities to show you’re there in an authentic, honest way so families know how to seek out support. Don’t wait for people to come to your office; speak at schools or do outreach at Latinx events or churches.
Researchers can help, too. A lot of folks have large Latinx samples in their own research that they don’t examine in a deeper way. Even having information about a sample’s generation status, language, and country of origin can help us understand Latinx communities more fully. If you do research in states like California, Texas, and New York, and your samples have large swaths of the Latinx community, consider partnering with researchers who are experts in these communities. We can, for example, help you consider what variables you might be missing.
How does understanding the experiences of other communities of color enrich your own study of Latinx youth and families?
That’s one of my favorite things I’ve been able to do: learn which processes have universality to them and which ones are unique. One protective factor we’ve seen across the board is optimism in the face of oppression. If someone struggles with depression, they can counteract symptoms by focusing on positive things they can accomplish. Different cultures can employ optimism in different ways for the same outcome. For Latinx families, it’s embedded in familial values and immigrant optimism. African American families that typically are native-born tend to cultivate optimism in other spaces like Black churches or their larger familial environments. Because there is not that immigrant component of coming to America to seek a better life, the African American community has learned how to carve out a better life in a system that’s built to oppress them.
What future research in this area are you most excited about?
We’ve known Latinx youth experience greater levels of depression symptoms than youth in other communities, and I’ve always wanted to understand why. What are the risks for depression and what protects them? Thanks to our research, we’re starting to understand.
I’m excited to do more intervention and prevention work, exploring how we can better support communities. For example, how can we instill skills in Latinx youth and families to cope with discrimination, and how can these different coping skills lead to different outcomes, whether it’s protecting youth from depression or from heart disease?
Most of our work has focused on interpersonal experiences of discrimination, and I am excited for work to consider discrimination on multiple levels—and what we can do about it. We want to better understand resilience and change the levers that impact mental health and the health of communities.
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