Creating a Culture of Care: Mental health among low-income African American Adolescents and the Role of Protective Factors

Academic Blog by: Sharonda Simmons

SimmonsSharonda currently serves as the Executive Director for Arrowwood Hills Community Center, a local non-profit serving youth, and families. She has a background in Positive Youth Development, her career and research interest include community-based intervention programs focused on adolescent health and creating culturally specific services for youth of color.

Reflecting back on your 17 year old self what were some of the main factors of stress or anxiety in your life? Many would mention academic pressure, fitting in, planning for prom, or uncertainty about the future as top stressors. Thinking of those stressors now add other issues such as housing instability, neighborhood violence, family substance abuse, and encounters with racism. In addition to the regular stress a 17 year-old might experience African American youth, particularly those from low-income backgrounds experience a multitude of stressors. Research published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that African American youth were more likely to experience negative life events such as divorce, witnessing violence, or starting a new school. Experiencing negative events and responding to stress is a very normal and necessary part of life yet continuous and prolonged stress can have severely negative effects on child and adolescent development. Toxic stress is defined as prolonged activation of the stress response with failure of the body to recover fully. Examples of toxic stress include abuse, neglect, extreme poverty, violence, household dysfunction, and food scarcity (Frankie, 2014).


Diagram simmons

Image courtesy of The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Research from this study along others concluded that African American youth from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to be exposed to violence, food scarcity, racism, and extreme poverty, all factors that create toxic stress. In 2018 the National Center for Children in Poverty reported that 37% of African American adolescents come from impoverished households. Several research studies have highlighted the correlation between race, poverty, and mental health issues. While recent studies have shown that African American youth are more likely to attempt suicide only 2% of African American youth saw a mental health specialist compared to almost 6% of white youth. The disparities regarding low-income African American youth are apparent yet what are the current strategies being used mitigate the effects of negative life experiences and toxic stress on youths' mental health? A study looking at social support and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among urban youth highlighted the importance of community support and protective factors in reducing the likelihood of PTSD. Protective factors are skills, coping mechanisms, resources, and support that help an individual deal more effectively with stressful events and mitigate risk in communities and families. This research and several others highlighted that youth who felt support from family, friends, and the larger community were less likely to display signs of mental health disorders including depression and anxiety even if they had exposure to extreme stressors and negative life experiences.

In order to effectively support African American especially those from low-income neighborhoods it can be suggested that interventions must take a multifaceted approach. Intervention strategies should include Communication, Coping Strategies, Cultural Competency, and a Community component. Providing opportunities for African American youth to express their concerns and share their stressors in a safe environment can reduce stigma around mental health issues. Involving family, mentors, and peers in community-based settings can allow for a greater sense of self-efficacy, confidence, belonging, and coping strategies for low-income African Americans. As we continue to research the relationship between protective factors and mitigating stress for low-income African American youth a deliberate and intentional culture of care must be at the forefront of any intervention strategy.