A Research Agenda for Mexican-American Adolescent Mental Health

Article excerpt

Mental health research on Mexican-American adults has increased in the last two decades, but as yet, very little is known of the psychological needs, problems, and development of adolescents. These young people will be the fastest growing youth population, increasing at a greater rate than African Americans or Anglos (Hayes-Bautista, Schink, & Chapa, 1988). As their demographic importance becomes increasingly apparent, they, and we, will be at a crossroad. Mental health research and policy decisions made now will affect the lives of these young people well into the next century.

Mexican-Americans make up the largest sub-group (62%) of the overall Hispanic population, living primarily in the western and southwestern United States. The median age of the Hispanic population is 25.9 years, compared to 33.2 for the the non-Hispanic population. Within Hispanics, the median age for Mexican-Americans is 23.6. Among Mexican-Americans, 42.9% are 19 years of age or younger, which is the largest percentage for all the Hispanic subgroups (Current Population Reports, Bureau of the Census, 1988; 1990).

The most prominent characteristic of the available research on Mexican-American adolescents is that there is so little of it, either applied or theoretical (Romero, 1983). The studies that do appear are scattered and uneven, and disproportionately fall into one of four categories: dropping out of high school, substance abuse, delinquency, and teenage pregnancy. These are not unimportant topics and more systematic and integrated work on them is needed, but a concomitant focus on basic research dealing with Mexican-American adolescents is also needed. In particular, an integrated and comprehensive research agenda that can stimulate and guide research on Mexican-American adolescent mental health is required. The purpose of this article is to provide such a strategy--which differs from current approaches to studying mental health issues among Mexican-American adolescents because, instead of concentrating on a particular problem area, the focus is on adolescents themselves. The central purpose is to understand the subjective and objective worlds of these young people. Because the problems they confront are highly interconnected, prevention/intervention will be enhanced by dealing with issues that underlie the specific problem areas (Scales, 1990).

Articulating a mental health research agenda on Mexican-American adolescents is almost too large a task. So little information is available that every issue imaginable could be encompassed. The aim here is not to produce an exhaustive list of research priorities, but to highlight an interrelated set of areas which can contribute to a psychology of these adolescents on the one hand, and have an impact on mental health program and policy development across a range of target areas (i.e., drug use, family conflict, school retention) on the other hand.

An added benefit of this approach is that it avoids perpetuating the image of Mexican-American adolescents as "problem youth," which tends to be the consequence of problem-focused research. In the process, a more complex and multidimensional view of this group can be developed.

Mexican-American Youth Today

Due to the paucity of research only a partial, and to a large extent distorted, picture of Mexican-American youth is available. As in the Mexican-American population as a whole, there is a great deal of heterogeneity among the adolescents; there is no prototype Mexican-American teenager. They come from many backgrounds and there is variety in their language, generational status, rural/urban status, and social class level.

This reality contrasts with the media image. For the most part, these teenagers are invisible in the media, particularly girls. When these teens do appear they are typically cast as delinquents, frequently as gang members. Even nonfictional presentations that appear in the media tend to focus on gangs. …