Morgan Stanley-backed researchers are working to identify the root causes of mental health disparities among Latinx youth in the wake of the COVID pandemic, as well as ways to address such disparities.
In pre-COVID times, Latinx youth were already less likely than their peers to receive treatment for mental health problems1. (Latinx is a term used to describe people who self-identify as being of Latin American origin or descent. It is gender-neutral, nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina.) New research, funded in part by the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, now attempts to document the extent to which the pandemic might have made these problems worse and, more importantly, how to mitigate the negative effects.
Cristiane Duarte, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Intergenerational Psychiatry and the Child Mental Health Disparities and Development Group in the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, believes that a powerful way to protect children is to address the stressors that are affecting the entire family unit.
“There’s no doubt that the pandemic has had a disproportional impact on members of underserved groups in general,” says Duarte. Compared to white Americans, Blacks and Latinxs have been hospitalized with COVID at significantly higher rates2; they’ve also suffered greater economic losses3. These disparities have served as acute stressors, which can pave the way for serious depression or anxiety. Duarte’s goal: to prevent the distress that adults are experiencing from trickling down to their children and subsequent generations.
Duarte, a specialist in intergenerational psychiatry, explains that the strain and tensions parents encounter can affect their children in different ways. For example, when a child’s father is hospitalized with COVID or a mother loses a job because of the pandemic, the child may feel scared, sad, or angry, possibly leading to anxiety or depression. But also, stress-induced biological changes in pregnant women can potentially affect fetuses and, in the absence of additional support, may put babies at risk for mental health problems as they grow up.4
Duarte and her colleagues are tackling this issue from numerous angles. As the principal investigator of the ongoing Boricua Youth Study5—which has been following three generations of Puerto Rican families in the Bronx, New York, as well as in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for 20 years—she has unique access to data about factors that may predispose Latinx youth to anxiety and depression, or protect them from it. “We have studied different types of adversities that may be part of childhood, like having a parent who’s been incarcerated, or subjected to domestic violence, but we’ve also learned about some protective factors that are important to this ethnic group, like a strong emphasis on family cohesion and a wide social support network,” she says.
The Boricua Youth Study has already yielded important findings about mental health in Puerto Rican youth, including the link between adversity in childhood and pubertal development, for example.6Duarte is now continuing her work with the pandemic as a backdrop, using funding from the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health to conduct two unique studies, both offshoots of the Boricua Youth Study.
The first, led by Duarte, aims to identify factors that might help explain why some Latinx children in NYC and Puerto Rico develop depression and anxiety as a result of COVID-related stressors, while others seem less affected.
The same study will test an intervention designed to protect the mental health of children by improving the well-being of their parents. “The intervention includes mindfulness-based strategies, but we’re adapting it to the needs of this population by taking into consideration what format might work for busy parents who often have to juggle multiple demands and have fewer resources available to them” says Duarte.
To determine the effectiveness of this intervention, Duarte and her colleagues will use saliva and hair samples to measure inflammation and participants’ stress levels, as well as collect parental reports about their changes in stress and overall ability to function. “The intervention should help parents immediately, but we think that by decreasing their stress we could also have an impact on the next generation,” she says. “That’s really the long-term goal.”
Meanwhile, Duarte is working with Jazmin Reyes-Portillo, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology in the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, on a separate Morgan Stanley-funded study that focuses on 13- to 15-year-old teenagers to gauge whether their use of social media might be linked to symptoms of anxiety or depression.
This study hypothesizes that social media use itself isn’t necessarily problematic but rather how teens use it. Specifically, Duarte and her colleagues are testing if “active” use of social media—commenting on posts, uploading videos, sending messages—can be benign or beneficial for mental health, as opposed to “passive” use, which lacks engagement and which they theorize may be correlated to an increased risk of mental health problems, like anxiety and depression.
To find out if that theory is correct, they will ask participants to share nine months of data from the social media platforms that they use. The study’s findings could help guide youth from diverse backgrounds to use social media in a way that’s more apt to protect their mental health than harm it. Focusing on young teens also presents an opportunity to influence social media habits before they’re ingrained and, ideally, to reduce the risk of mental illness before it even starts.
“It’s a small study but we’re very excited about it,” says Duarte. Her hope is that both of these studies will help shed more light on how to best address mental health disparities and break the intergenerational cycle of adversity in Latinx families.