Urban Families and Adolescent Mental Health

By Stern, Susan B.; Smith, Carolyn A. et al. | Social Work Research, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Urban Families and Adolescent Mental Health


Stern, Susan B., Smith, Carolyn A., Jang, Sung Joon, Social Work Research


The study discussed in this article investigated the effects of social and economic disadvantage on parent distress, family processes, and adolescent mental health in a longitudinal, multiethnic sample of 800 urban adolescents and parents. The findings support the hypothesis that poverty, life stressors, and isolation affect parent mood and disrupt family processes, which, in turn, are linked to adolescent externalizing and internalizing problems. The findings illustrate the importance of integrating an understanding of family processes and context in assessment and intervention directed at adolescent mental health problems.

Key words: adolescents; families; mental health; poverty; stressors

There is widespread concern about the high prevalence, estimated at between 14 percent and 26 percent, of mental health disorders among children and adolescents Brandenberg, Friedman, & Silver, 1987; Tuma, 1989). Some research has suggested that the adverse social conditions that many urban families face place urban youths, especially those living in inner cities, at elevated risk of mental health problems (McLoyd, 1998; Tolan & Henry, 1996). This heightened risk has serious negative consequences for youths, their families, communities, and society, especially given the persistence within a subset of youths of some of the most prevalent adolescent problems, such as aggression (Olweus, 1979) and depression (Cicchetti & Toth, 1998).

Ecological systems perspectives, influenced by Bronfenbrenner (1986) and consistent with social work's person-in-environment framework, argue that there is a dynamic interaction between youths and the multiple systems in which they are embedded. This perspective currently is being extended to understand better the intersection between adversity and various outcomes for urban youths (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, & Aber, 1997; Kahn & Kamerman, 1996). In this article we present the results of our investigation of how adversity in an urban context influences more immediate family and parenting processes that affect adolescent mental health, and we discuss the implications of these findings for social work intervention with urban youths and families.

URBAN CONTEXT

Urban environments provide a myriad of diverse experiences and opportunities, but the pervasive problems of inner cities in particular pose a range of challenges for healthy child development (Furstenberg, 1993). Many urban communities are characterized by concentrations of poor (McLoyd, 1990) and single-parent households (Sampson & Lauritsen, 1994), where parenting capacities may be stretched. Inner-city communities expose youths to substance abuse (Brookins, Petersen, & Brooks, 1997; Hawkins, 1993), violence (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994; Bell & Jenkins, 1993; Martinez & Richters, 1993), crime (Sampson, 1993), and economic distress, including poverty and lack of employment opportunities (Jencks, 1992; Wilson, 1987, 1996). In addition, poor urban youths are more apt to live in inadequate housing and attend schools of substandard quality (McLoyd, 1998; Tolan & Gorman-Smith, 1997).

Children and families facing the environmental stresses associated with concentrated poverty are likely also to have fewer resources from which to draw (Garbarino & Kostelny, 1993) and more limited access to services (Griffin, Cicchetti, & Leaf, 1993; McKay, Stoewe, McCadam, & Gonzales, 1998). The situation is exacerbated in some urban communities by the increasing isolation and erosion of traditional social institutions.

Youths and families from ethnic minority groups in cities are disproportionately affected by adversity. Research on the changing nature of poverty indicates that today poor families of color are more likely than poor white families to experience persistent poverty and live in the most disadvantaged inner-city communities (McLoyd, 1998). The experiences of poverty and other life stressors for these youths and families are magnified by racism and oppression. …

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