Hispanic Teens at Higher Risk for Substance Abuse, Depression

Straddling two cultures is challenging, and for Hispanic teens it means being at a greater risk for depression, binge drinking and smoking, according to recent research from Florida International University (FIU) and New York University (NYU). The studies questioned Hispanic teens from Miami, Los Angeles and New York City and found that stress caused by discrimination and other factors correlated with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Hispanic Teens and Cultural Stress

Hispanic teens in the U.S. face the challenge of living in two worlds: traditional life at home and the American world of school and work. In the outside world, many of these teens face discrimination along with the stress of coping with the transition from one culture to another. Research has shown that Hispanics living in such urban areas as New York City are likely to experience environmental and social stressors. These include racial and ethnic discrimination, poverty, unemployment, crowded housing, cultural transitions and low self-esteem.

Cultural Stress and Substance Abuse

The study from FIU drew on survey answers from randomly selected Hispanic teens living in Miami and Los Angeles. Over six months, the teens were regularly questioned about the kinds of stress they experienced, including personal instances of ethnic discrimination or hostile treatment for being Hispanic. The teens were also asked about drinking, smoking and associated behaviors. The results showed that Hispanic teens were more likely to smoke and binge drink than their non-Hispanic peers and that there was a correlation between the stressors they experienced, particularly discrimination, and those behaviors. There was no difference between the teens in Miami and Los Angeles. Both groups were equally impacted by cultural stress and were equally at greater risk for substance abuse.

Cultural Stress and Mental Health

The FIU study also asked the teens about symptoms of depression and found a link between cultural stress and depression. Another recent study, from NYU, investigated discrimination-related stress and a range of mental health issues in Hispanic teens in New York City. Nearly 200 teens, a mix of first- and second-generation individuals, were interviewed over the course of three years in high school. Those students who had faced personal instance of discrimination were more likely to have mental health issues. The most common issues were symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders, as well as sleep problems. A positive takeaway from the NYU study was that the teens’ mental health symptoms decreased as they got older. They seemed better able to cope with the stress of cultural and ethnic discrimination as they became juniors and seniors in high school. Facing discrimination and other culturally-related stressors during adolescence can be particularly damaging. Teens facing these kinds of stress are also feeling the more typical angst of adolescence. It is a time when young people are forging their identities and thinking about the future. To have to face the additional stress of being bicultural and discrimination can be damaging. The recent studies are important in pinpointing the fact that cultural stress is having a negative impact on teens. It is an impact that is far-reaching. For instance, substance abuse, smoking and untreated mental health issues could create lifelong consequences for these teens. Knowing that there is a problem is the first step toward making it better. With this knowledge we can create better programs for prevention, intervention and treatment and better protect vulnerable young people.

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