Patricia Foxen, PhD, Deputy Director of Research, NCLR
Photo: Michael Coghlan
The psychological health of Latino youth has become an increasingly urgent issue for our nation to address. This is not only because of the rising importance of the young Latino demographic, but also because of the intimate connection between mental health and all other aspects of an individual and community’s well-being. Most young Latinos are coping, and even thriving, in the face of challenging circumstances. However, recent surveys show that Hispanic adolescents are more likely to struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues than Black or White teens. Latino youth who develop mental health problems, which can range from depression and trauma to substance abuse and conduct problems, are likely to fail or drop out of school, to not get appropriate treatment, and to be misdiagnosed, often due to a lack of cultural knowledge on the part of health practitioners.
Of particular concern is the fact that juvenile detention has become a dumping ground for minority youth with mental health issues. Indeed, a significant portion of incarcerated Hispanic youth has one or more diagnosable mental or substance use disorders. Within detention facilities themselves, mental health problems often go undetected and untreated. Moreover, Latino youth in these facilities are exposed to a highly punitive system and are more likely than White youth to be sentenced to adult prisons, which exacerbates psychological problems for these youth.
What are the main factors that contribute to psychological vulnerability among Latino youth? Most risk factors stem from the social and environmental contexts within which a majority of Latinos reside. Over half of Latino kids under age 18 live in families where at least one parent is an immigrant. With parents who struggle at low-wage, unstable jobs—and in some cases are either undocumented or have been deported—Latino adolescents often have to work to supplement their family’s income. These teens often take on other adult roles as well, which can contribute to disrupted schooling and heightened anxiety. An especially difficult dynamic for young second-generation Hispanics, who are the majority of Latino youth, is the fact that immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children often acclimate to U.S. society in different ways and at different rates, often causing significant tension within the family. This type of dynamic, labeled “acculturative stress” by clinicians has been closely associated with a wide range of mental health issues for youth, including high suicide attempt rates among young Latinas.
Poverty among Latino families is another major risk factor. Sixty-three percent of Hispanic kids live in low-income families (compared to 29 percent of White children). Many attend overcrowded schools and live in poor neighborhoods characterized by crime, gangs, violence, and drugs. For those who live in areas of rampant anti-immigrant sentiment, discrimination and bullying can exacerbate already tough circumstances. The stress of living in such environments is hazardous to the well-being of young Latinos, and researchers have connected this stress to a higher likelihood of major depressive disorders, anxiety, antisocial activity, and physical aggression.
In order to improve Latino youths’ prospects of attaining healthy, productive lives, greater efforts must be made to change the environmental factors described here. Also it is important to enhance culturally appropriate psychosocial services and provide the resources that will enable youth to receive treatment. Numerous examples of effective, culturally centered, research-based interventions exist (including, for example, Jovenes Nobles, Cuento Therapy, as well as mainstream therapies that have been culturally adapted to particular groups). While these should be customized and expanded to Latino communities throughout the country, further support should also be given to developing and evaluating promising new programs that respect local, community-based treatment approaches. Within the broader juvenile justice sector, systems reform and community outreach—as promoted, for example, by the Models for Change initiative and the W. Haywood Burns Institute—should be supported.
The key to successful mental health interventions for Latino youth is that interventions take into account the broader context of culture, family, and community. The interventions should focus on building on the strengths of young Latinos, healing community wounds, and providing concrete pathways toward success and mental health. These programs can go a long way toward curbing the growing incidence of psychological distress among young Hispanics, and ensuring that our Latino youth become vibrant, productive adults.