GW Research Team Awarded Funding to Study Impact of Stress, Adversity on Latino/a Adolescents

This NIH-funded project combines public health, clinical psychology, sociology and public policy.

November 15, 2021

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This interdisciplinary team of researchers was initially brought together with support from GW’s Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

An interdisciplinary team of George Washington University researchers was awarded a more than $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the impact of immigrant- and pandemic-related adversities on stress processes and indicators of health and well being for Latino/a adolescents. The researchers also will identify community, family and youth strengths that help buffer young people from the harmful impacts of adversity later in life.

This research project brings together Kathleen Roche, professor in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, Sharon Lambert, professor of clinical and community psychology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), and Elizabeth Vaquera, associate professor of sociology and public policy and public administration in CCAS and director of the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute. They will collaborate with experts at the University of Michigan, Arizona State University and Georgia State University.

This five-year project, “A Longitudinal Study of Adversity, Stress Processes and Latinx Health from Adolescence to Young Adulthood,” is funded by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The new project builds on an ongoing five-year NIH-funded study of Latino families. Faculty partnerships and pilot research for the NIH grants were initiated through the support of GW’s Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund (CDRF), which facilitates collaborative partnerships within centers and institutes or between investigators from two or more schools that apply for external funding opportunities. 

The rise in anti-immigrant policies beginning in 2017, coupled with economic uncertainty and threats to health caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, “raise serious stress-related public health concerns for today’s Latino/a youth,” Dr. Roche said. These challenges may be heightened in new immigrant areas where Latino/a families have fewer rights, benefits, and access to Latino-friendly school and healthcare settings than is the case in more established immigrant areas. 

“Stress processes can increase youth’s mental health problems and chronic disease risk, and can also limit the social and economic mobility of Latino/a young people as they begin to transition into adulthood,” Dr. Roche said. “This research study will identify how stress exposures affect later outcomes by examining biological changes and family processes such as parent depression and parent-youth conflict.”

In the first study in 2017, Dr. Roche and Dr. Lambert and other study investigators recruited about 550 Latino middle school students, ages 11 to 14, in the new immigrant destination of suburban Atlanta to determine how neighborhood, school and family settings shape Latino/a youth’s adjustment during adolescence. They also spoke with mothers or maternal figures to explore how discrimination, language barriers and the presence of other Latinos in neighborhood settings affect parenting and, in turn, Latino/a youth’s school performance, mental health and substance use.

This new NIH funding will support the research team in continuing to collect data from families and beginning to examine cortisol levels, the primary stress hormone, from this cohort over a longer period. This will enable the team to trace the onset of health behaviors from as early as age 11 through early adulthood—a critical period of development—amidst historic changes in the immigrant environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings will inform preventive interventions that may “support Latino/a youth in managing adversities tied to the anti-immigrant political landscape and COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Lambert said.

“Because the study covers so many time points since the adolescents were fairly young, there's opportunities to see not just how they're struggling, but how they're succeeding despite the chaos and confusion and stress they're facing,” Dr. Lambert said. 

This study will provide much needed data on the environment of emerging immigrant destinations, which typically have fewer resources and support in place. Latino/a residents in new immigrant areas report high levels of social isolation, discrimination, language barriers and stress, among Latino families.

Young people who experience discrimination in adolescence—whether they're showing immediate or severe symptoms at the time or not—carry that stressor into adulthood where it can manifest in various ways, Dr. Lambert said. The research team plans to use its findings to form recommendations for interventions, policies, and programs that can assist Latino/a youth in coping with adversity in healthy ways. 

The researchers have put together a team of undergraduate and graduate-level student researchers to work on the project who are both bilingual and bicultural, Dr. Vaquera said. After participating in an intensive training, and with the supervision of the investigators, the student researchers will gain experience in administering surveys with participants and safely handling hair and saliva samples used to assess cortisol.   

The engagement of student researchers was very important to the investigators because “they understand the populations we are working with,” Dr. Vaquera said. 

“They themselves can contribute to the research because they are knowledgeable about the issues, struggles and opportunities experienced by the study’s youth and young adults,” she said.

This project is the first that brings together Dr. Roche, Dr. Lambert and Dr. Vaquera, combining their expertise in public health, psychology, sociology, and public policy to provide a holistic picture of the Latino/a youth experience in the United States.

Dr. Roche and Dr. Lambert published a paper in JAMA Pediatrics in March 2020 that linked significantly higher odds of suicidal ideation, alcohol use and other symptoms of distress for youth who had family members detained or deported in the prior 12 months. They proposed that then-current immigration policies may be associated with increased risks for outcomes threatening the health of Latino/a adolescents. 

Dr. Roche and Dr. Vaquera first started working together in 2017 after receiving a Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund award for a pilot project studying immigrant Latino/a parents raising teenagers in the Washington, D.C., area. The project found that parents who frequently experienced worries or modified behavior in response to immigration news and policies had at least a 300% increase in the odds of high psychological distress, including clinical anxiety and depression. These findings were used to inform federal lawsuits around the separation of parents from their children at the United States-Mexico border, Dr. Roche said.

The vast majority of young Latino/as in the United States are American citizens, according to the Pew Research Center. From a policy perspective, it’s in the national interest to support the health and well-being of Latino/a youth to ensure they have successful and healthy futures, Dr. Roche said. 

The team has been at the forefront of research documenting how anti-immigrant sentiments and policy actions in the United States since 2017 have affected Latino/a youth and their families. While the political environment in the United States has changed since then, “anti-immigrant rhetoric is still alive and well,” Dr. Roche said. 

“Experiences of discrimination and marginalization against Latino/as existed well before the last president, and continue today,” she said.