Academic journal article Social Work Research

Religion and Substance Use among Youths of Mexican Heritage: A Social Capital Perspective

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Religion and Substance Use among Youths of Mexican Heritage: A Social Capital Perspective

Article excerpt

Despite elevated levels of substance use among many Latino youths, there has been little research on protective factors against such use. In keeping with federal commitments to address health disparities, this prospective study examined the protective influence of religion on substance use among a school-based sample (N = 804) of youths of Mexican heritage in the American Southwest. Drawing from the social capital literature, the authors posited that both integration into religious networks and trust in religious values at time 1 (T1) would predict less likelihood of using substances at time 2 (T2) but that exposure to religious norms at T1 would not predict subsequent substance use at T2.The hypotheses regarding religious networks and religious norms were largely confirmed, whereas little support emerged for the hypothesis regarding religious values. The results are discussed in light of the various pathways through which religion may exhibit a protective influence.

KEY WORDS: Mexican Americans; religion; social capital; substance use; youths


Compared with high school students in the early 1990s, current students are doing much better on a broad array of health-risk measures (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2008c). However, Latino students--of which Mexican-heritage youths comprise the majority--have not experienced the same degree of progress (CDC, 2008a). According to the CDC's (2008b) National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Hispanic students were more likely than either African American or non-Hispanic white students to use cocaine, heroin, or Ecstasy; ride with someone who had been drinking alcohol; avoid going to school due to safety concerns; be offered illegal drugs on school property; and drink alcohol while at school.

Although Latinos fair better than other ethnic groups on some other substance use measures, the CDC's epidemiological data may understate the substance use problem among Latino youths because it is based on students who are currently attending high school. Relative to black and white students, the drop-out rate among Latino students is much higher (Keppel, 2007). In earlier grades--before most students have dropped out--the prevalence rates across a number of substance use measures are comparatively higher for Latinos (Delva et al., 2005). For example, with the exception of amphetamines and smokeless tobacco, Latinos in the eighth-grade have the highest rates of use across all substances (Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman & Schulenberg, 2003). Because early initiation into substance use predicts use in later adolescence (Vega, Chen, & Williams, 2007; Warner et al., 2006), it is possible that the substance use problem among Latinos is significantly greater than the already concerning picture delineated by the CDC.

Despite federal commitments to address health disparities in areas such as substance use, little research has been conducted with Latino samples (Amaro & Igachi, 2006).The need for such research is particularly pressing when considering that Latinos are now the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, accounting for 15% of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). Furthermore, given that youths are particularly at risk for substance abuse, and the Latino population is younger than the general population and characterized by high fertility rates, identifying protective factors that help prevent substance use among youths is of critical importance (Delva et al., 2005;Volkow, 2006).

One factor that may inhibit substance use among youths is the multidimensional construct of religion. Religion can be understood as a shared set of beliefs and practices that has been developed in community with people who have similar understandings of the transcendent, which is designed to mediate an individual's relationship with God or the transcendent (Geppert, Bogenschutz, & Miller, 2007; Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001). …

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