Discrimination and the Immigrant Paradox for Hispanic Teens

Recent research shows that Hispanic teens born in the U.S. suffer more mental health issues as a result of discrimination than their foreign-born peers. This is yet another example of the immigrant paradox, which has been seen in study after study: foreign-born Hispanics in the U.S. suffer fewer mental health issues and are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than Hispanics born here.

Hispanic Teens and Discrimination

As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough, Hispanic teens experience bigotry and discrimination. On top of the usual reasons for teen angst, they have to cope with being mistreated because of their ethnicity. This fact is not different for Hispanic teens born in the U.S. and for those who were born outside the country but residing here now. Both experience discrimination and mistreatment as a result of being Hispanic, but the U.S.-born teens are suffering more for it. A recent study confirms this fact and was published in the journal Child Development. The researchers from New York University surveyed 173 Hispanic teens attending city high schools. The teens were interviewed during their sophomore, junior and senior years of high school, and the group included both immigrant teens and those who had been born and reared in the U.S. The teens in the survey were asked about how much stress they experienced as a result of discrimination. They were also asked about any issues with sleep and about symptoms of anxiety and depression. The researchers found no difference between the two categories of Hispanic teens with respect to the amount of stress they felt from discrimination. However, the U.S.-born teens experienced more anxiety, depression and troubled sleep as a result of it. The researchers did take away one positive observation from their surveys. They found that as the teens progressed through high school, their mental health symptoms associated with discrimination improved. Overall mental health improved as the teens got older, which suggests that they developed positive ways of coping with discrimination and the resultant stress.

The Immigrant Paradox

The results of the study highlight yet again that there is a phenomenon at work that many experts call the immigrant paradox. Hispanics born outside of the U.S. seem to have some protection from mental health and substance abuse issues. Some experts suggest that the reason for this protective effect is a closer connection to culture of origin. Immigrants are still firmly attached to the culture in the country in which they were born, and that connection helps them cope with stresses that often lead second-generation Hispanics to abuse substances or suffer from mental health symptoms. Another reason for the paradox may be that recent immigrants don’t notice discrimination as much as those in the second generation.

Supporting Hispanic Teens

That the teens in the study seemed to be able to develop coping strategies over time shows that they are resilient, but they remain vulnerable. Understanding the effects of discrimination is important so that concerned and involved adults know that they need to support Hispanic teens. Parents, teachers, mentors and other adults can be positive role models for teens experiencing discrimination. They can model strategies for coping with discrimination and for coping with the resulting stress. Also important may be interventions for those teens who are not coping well and may be heading down a dangerous path of substance abuse or who are suffering from untreated mental illness. Being aware of the issues is important for both teens and adults. The more we know about discrimination and its effects, the better we can fight it.

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