American Indian Youths' Perceptions of Their Environment and Their Reports of Depressive Symptoms and Alcohol/marijuana Use

By Nalls, A. Mercedes; Mullis, Ronald L. et al. | Adolescence, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

American Indian Youths' Perceptions of Their Environment and Their Reports of Depressive Symptoms and Alcohol/marijuana Use


Nalls, A. Mercedes, Mullis, Ronald L., Mullis, Ann K., Adolescence


Many American Indian youth are able/to successfully navigate life and avoid problem behaviors (LaFromboise, Hoyt, Oliver, & Whitbeck, 2006). However, reservation youth experience many challenges, including adaptation to the changing demands of their native and mainstream American cultures (LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993). Reservation life frequently entails many risk factors for adolescent development. According to the U.S. Census (2000) around 13% of all American Indians live on reservations. Employment rates on most reservations are below 75% with per capita income estimated at around $3,000 to $4,000 leaving around 50% of American Indians living below the poverty level (U.S. Census, 2000). Beyond poverty, American Indian adolescents are frequently exposed to violence, alcohol and drug-use, and prejudice from surrounding communities (Oetting, Swaim, Edwards, & Beauvais, 1989). Therefore, considering these characteristics, reservations as a context present many challenges to American Indian youth.

In explaining these findings, many scholars cite peer and family influence (e.g., Kulis, Okamoto, Rayle, & Sen, 2006), or historical wrongs (e.g., Beauvais, 1998), but few examine the neighborhoods and school environments on reservations as contextual factors. Context plays an important role in the development of children and youth (e.g., Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006; Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). Boardman and Onge (2005) asserted that adolescence in particular is a period when contexts, such as neighborhoods and schools, become important for development. They emphasized the amount of time adolescents spend in these contexts as compared to children or adults. Therefore, experiences and information gleaned from the normative environments of their neighborhoods and schools have direct consequences for adolescent well-being.

Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006) emphasized the individual's subjective experience of an environment stating, "Very few of the external influences significantly affecting human behavior and development can be described solely in objective physical conditions and events" (p. 797). A person's interaction with his or her world, which includes persons, objects, and symbols, is shaped by the characteristics of the environment and historical time period (Bronfenbrenner & Morris). They illustrated the environmental context as a series of nested systems that can either promote or thwart an individual's development. Based on their theory, it can be hypothesized that American Indian adolescents' perceptions of two microsystems, their neighborhood and school environments, will be influenced in their development. The adolescents' reports related to safety illustrate a characteristics of these environments, one that potentially inhibits important developmental interactions. Therefore, perceptions of unsafe environments can be related to adolescent developmentally dysfunctional behaviors such as depression or alcohol/marijuana abuse.

The Neighborhood Context

Stiffman et al. (1999) found that the preceived neighborhood environment significantly mediated the relation between measures of objective (e.g., census data) neighborhood environment and adolescent reports of depression and alcohol/drug use. In addition, they noted that exposure to violence increased this effect. With the goal of relating adolescent neighborhood perceptions to specific internalizing and externalizing behaviors, Aneshensel and Sucoff (1996) asked adolescents to rate the ambient hazards present in their neighborhood, such as graffiti, drive-by shootings, gangs, drug use and dealing, police harassment, and general cleanliness. Using hierarchical regression analyses, they found that older and African American adolescents tended to rate their neighborhoods as more threatening. In addition, they found that female adolescents reported more depression symptoms than did male adolescents, and adolescents' reports of ambient hazards were significantly positively related to their reports of depressive symptoms. …

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