Urban Stress and Mental Health among African-American Youth: Assessing the Link between Exposure to Violence, Problem Behavior, and Coping Strategies

Article excerpt

Abstract: This project examines gender differences in exposure to violence, coping strategies and problem behavior among 306 African-- American middle and high school students in the state of Virginia. Gender differences in problem behaviors among youth exposed to violence as either victims or witnesses are examined in addition to variations in coping strategies. Relying on recent research examining violent behavior and victimization events, the study focuses on the internalizing and externalizing behavioral characteristics (i.e., academic achievement, anxiety, depression, negative self-esteem, and delinquency) of urban students exposed to violence and the extent to which coping strategies differ. Results show specific gender differences with regard to problem behavior and coping strategy among African-American youth exposed to violence. For adolescent males, exposure to violence and victimization are more likely to exhibit internalizing symptoms indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder. Among students exposed to violence and victimization, females are more likely to use problem-focused coping (i.e., social support) as an adaptive strategy in comparison to males. Implications for intervention and future research are discussed.

Key Words: Urban Stress, Mental Health Among African American Youth, Violent Behavior, Behavior Coping Strategies

Despite the increase in research devoted to violent behavior among children and adolescents, (for example, see Ellickson and McGuigan, 2000; Finkelhor, 1997; Margolin and Gordis, 2000; Yell and Rozalski, 2000; Liu, 2000; Henry et al., 2001), few investigators have addressed the long-term effects of gun and drug-related violence on African-American youth, particularly violent incidents occurring within the family and community. Further, little is known about gender differeces in behavioral and emotional outcomes associated with victimization among minority youth exposed to violence. While studies have suggested that the prevalence of firearms possession and homicide negatively affect the mental health and development of school-aged children and adolescents residing in chronically violent neighborhoods (Dekovic, 1999; Donaldson and Prinstein, 2000; Ellickson and McGuigan, 2000; Farrell and Bruce, 1997; Hill and Madhere, 1996; Sampson, 1998), less is known about variations in coping strategies among these youth, while the relation of coping to emotional and behavioral problems remains unclear (Compas et al., 1988; Henry et al., 2001). Although exposure to violence has severe implications for school performance, social relationships, and the overall quality of a child's life, studies have shown that adaptive coping protects inner-city children from the impact of daily stressors which in turn cause negative behavioral and emotional outcomes (Kliewer et al., 1998; Kliewer and Kung, 1998; Weist et al., 2001; Mazza, 1999; Henry et al., 2001). The present study examines gender differences in the relationship between exposure to violence, coping strategies, and behavioral outcomes such as academic achievement, anxiety, depression, negative self-esteem, and deliquency among a sample of minority youth. Emphasis is placed on the extent to which coping processes help to buffer behavioral and emotional responses to stressful life events such as exposure to crime and violence among 306 African-American adolescents in the state of Virginia.

Exposure to Violence and Victimization

Research findings continue to indicate that many of the personal problems experienced by African-- American youth, in particular, originate in the social and economic structures of society, causing a direct impairment of their abilities to adapt to or modify their environment (Brookins et al., 1997; Tobin and Gorman-Smith, 1997; Scarpa, 2001; Williams and Stiffman, 1998; Cooley-Quille et al., 2001; Berman et al., 2001; Wills et al., 1995). Environmental factors such as chronic exposure to community violence negatively impact development and adaptive functioning among these youth (Cooley-Quille et al. …