Posted on September 19, 2019

Experience of Being a Minority Puts U.S. Teens at Higher Risk of Anxiety, Depression

MGH Public Affairs, Harvard Medical School, September 11, 2019

Puerto Rican teens growing up as minorities in the South Bronx are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their peers growing up as a majority in Puerto Rico, even under similar conditions of poverty, says a new study in World Psychiatry.

Researchers looked at nearly 2,000 Puerto Rican youth over two decades to understand how minority status and factors such as racism, poverty, violence and social support influence mental health. Although youth in Puerto Rico are poorer and face more homicides than young people living in the South Bronx, the experience of living as a minority group in the United States led to worse mental health outcomes.


{snip} The study was conducted by Alegria and colleagues at HMS, Mass General, Columbia University and the University of Puerto Rico.

Researchers looked at 1,863 Puerto Rican youth ages 15 to 29 living in New York’s South Bronx and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to explore whether growing up as part of a minority group in disadvantaged neighborhoods puts young people at risk for depression and anxiety and which factors lead to that risk. They also interviewed 1,100 parents and caregivers in both places to get their perspectives.

Complex dynamics

The researchers examined four general buckets of categories that influence mental health: environmental and social factors, cultural and minority stress, parent and peer relations and family/individual vulnerability.

The key influencers that put teens at risk for mood disorders included perceived discrimination (including neighborhood discrimination, the stress of being a minority and unfair treatment) and cultural factors (including weaker ethnic identity and intercultural conflict). The strengths of childhood social support and good peer relationships explained the differences in mental health outcomes between minority and majority youth.


Compared to their peers in Puerto Rico, parents in the South Bronx reported more neighborhood discrimination, a lower level of family connection and more family cultural distress. Similarly, young people in the South Bronx reported weaker ethnic identity and lower levels of familism, an ideology that prioritizes family, than their peers in Puerto Rico.


Neighborhood-based interventions focused on building positive social relationships, like youth civic organizations in after-school programs could be effective ways to combat anxiety and depression among minority youth, the authors add. Strong parental and peer relationships also offer these youth important buffering tools to combat the stress of discrimination and counter the negative social mirror that puts them at risk for internalizing negative experiences.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.