Acculturative Stress Diminishes Mental Health Gains in Minority Teenagers

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 “Overall, the three components of mental health symptoms we explored—withdrawn/depressed, anxious/depressed, and somatic symptoms—decreased over time between 10th and 12th grade, although in different patterns,” said Sirin. In particular, adolescents who were withdrawn and depressed saw significant symptom reduction from 10th grade to 12th grade.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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  • Audrey A

    June 26th, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    That’s an interesting theory that the stress levels seem to increase again as the teens reach an age where they will now be graduating into adulthood and are faced with some of life’s most difficult choices. There are probably many members of these minority communities who are looking to either go to work full time or may be thinking about college and worrying about the logistics of being able to make it work financially and achieve some of the goals in their lives that perhaps they may be the first in their family to realize or even attempt. All teens have it tough as this is a time for finding out who you are and where you wnat to go in life but the added pressures of feeling alone in a world of majorities that does not include you can be pretty overwhelming.

  • Juan

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    Where I grew up there were no other Puerto Rican families so you could esily tell that one of these things was not like the other of you catch my drift. It’s not that I ever faced discrimination or anything like that that I perceived, but there was still this feeling that I had in me of not fitting in and not feeling like I was good enough to be a part of that community. I moved away when I went to college and looked more for a school that I felt reflected me and my background, but some to find out I did not feel like I fit in there either because of where I was raised. It can be a tough situation all the way around for kids of any minority group who have a had=rd time assimilating into any one group because there is always this struggle of who you should identify with and where you feel the most at ease.

  • Chuck S

    June 27th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    Sad really that most immigrants come to the country initially seeking a better life, and then they get here and many of them along with their families have a difficult time adjusting

  • Austin

    June 27th, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    I get so tired of this. They are given all of the same opportunities for success that the rest of us are. Life is wht you make of it, okay? Maybe they aren’t doing their part. Ever thought of that?

  • Beth B

    June 28th, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    Austin, that’s a pretty harsh attitude to take.
    I know that for us who have grown up here it may feel like we have been given every possible opportunity to succeed.
    But think about how it must feel to come to a country, unfamiliar with the language and unfamiliar with the culture and then being expected to fit in from the very start.
    It isn’t possible.
    These things take time to blend seamlessly into society and to actually feel a part of it.
    I feel bad rather than accusatory, because I think about what my own role could be in this and whether there are things that I could have done or still can do to make someone’s life just a little bit easier. Wouldn’t I want someone to do the same thing for me?

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