How Ethnic Minority Context Alters the Risk for Developing Mental Health Disorders and Psychological Distress for Latinx Young Adults

Margarita Alegría, Mario Cruz-Gonzalez, Kiara Alvarez, Glorisa Canino, Cristiane Duarte, Hector Bird, Maria Ramos-Olazagasti, Sheri Lapatin Markle, Isabel O'malley, Doriliz Vila, Patrick E. Shrout

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Policy Points In low-income communities in the South Bronx and Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican youth are exposed to many of the same risk and protective factors for developing depression, anxiety, or psychological distress; yet it is unclear how the ethnic minority context of the South Bronx and ethnic majority context of Puerto Rico influence risk. Results from our quasi-experimental, longitudinal study demonstrate the importance of addressing social factors (parent-child relationships, youth peer relationships) for youth living in the majority context, and neighborhood and cultural factors (residential mobility, perceived discrimination, perceived social position in the neighborhood) for youth living in the minority context. Our findings support the need for tailoring programs specific to the needs of youth who reside in an ethnic majority or a minority context, since some of the risk factors might operate differently depending on context. Housing and neighborhood environment policies that address discrimination and eliminate structural inequities for ethnic minority groups may protect against the harm of minoritization on young people's mental health. Context: Puerto Rican youth growing up in low-income communities in the South Bronx and Puerto Rico are exposed to many of the same risk factors for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and psychological distress. One potentially powerful factor differs: Puerto Ricans have been socially marginalized as an ethnic minority group in the South Bronx, but are the ethnic majority of the population in Puerto Rico. A growing body of literature demonstrates the influence of neighborhood, cultural, and social factors and parental psychopathology in the development of mental health problems. An important unanswered question is whether these risk and protective factors have the same impact for youth raised as members of an ethnic majority versus minority group. Methods: Using a population-based cohort study, with four waves of assessment from early childhood into young adulthood, we investigated whether ethnic minority context alters risk and protective factors for depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. Our longitudinal data set includes 2,491 young children at baseline (82.8% retained at wave 4). Using a quasi-experimental design, we examine how ethnic minority context can alter the development of mental health disorders as Latinx children transition to late adolescence and young adulthood. Findings: Some risk and protective factors operated differently across minority and majority contexts. Higher discrimination and social position were more powerful risk and protective factors, respectively, in the minority context, whereas positive peer relationships mattered more in the majority context. Children of mothers with depression were significantly more likely to develop anxiety in late adolescence and young adulthood in the majority context (60.0%) compared to the minority context (4.5%). Conclusions: Preventing depression and anxiety disorders in Latinx young adults may require targeting different childhood factors depending on whether they reside within the ethnic majority or minority context. People in the ethnic minority context may benefit more from policies aimed at reducing discrimination and improving economic opportunity, while people in the majority context may benefit more from opportunities for strengthening family and peer relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)424-463
Number of pages40
JournalMilbank Quarterly
Issue number2
Early online dateFeb 21 2022
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • BYS
  • Latinx
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • longitudinal
  • minority
  • moderator
  • young adults

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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