Acculturative stress is a term used to describe psychological distress that arises from cultural conditions, such as poor socioeconomic environments or living in violent communities. Immigrant children, either born to parents who are immigrants or themselves born outside of the United States, experience a significantly high rate of acculturative stress. Research has shown that immigrant teenagers are especially vulnerable to the negative mental health consequences of their circumstances and life experiences. Immigrant children often live in urban communities with elevated rates of violence, crime, and substance use. Additionally, these children struggle to acclimate to a school that may be culturally diverse and may not be able to provide them with all of the resources they need to succeed. All of these factors contribute to the high levels of psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, among immigrant youth.
Although much research has been conducted on the mental health of immigrant children, fewer studies have looked at the trajectories of specific symptoms and how acculturative stress influences these paths. Selcuk R. Sirin of the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University recently led a study to determine how this type of stress affects various mental health symptoms in immigrant teens. Using a sample of 322 10th-grade immigrant teens, Sirin evaluated levels of anxiety, depression and somatic symptoms over 2 years. The results revealed interesting patterns for each symptom. “Overall, the three components of mental health symptoms we explored—withdrawn/depressed, anxious/depressed, and somatic symptoms—decreased over time between 10th and 12th grade, although in different patterns,” said Sirin. In particular, adolescents who were withdrawn and depressed saw significant symptom reduction from 10th grade to 12th grade. However, the anxious/depressed participants experienced a decrease in the first year, and then an increase in symptoms in 12th grade. Additionally, Sirin found that the somatic symptoms also increased slightly in 12th grade. These increases were only present when acculturative stress was included in the analysis. Sirin believes that the pressure immigrant teens feel when they approach the transition from school to work could be the cause of the symptom increases seen in this study. These findings suggest that therapists, teachers, and counselors pay close attention to acculturative stress and the negative impact it can have on immigrant teens as they near the end of their high school experience.
Sirin, S. R., Ryce, P., Gupta, T., Rogers-Sirin, L. (2012). The role of acculturative stress on mental health symptoms for immigrant adolescents: A longitudinal investigation. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028398
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