Since the early 1990s, there has been a steady increase in the number of Latina/o students attending college in the United States. By 2014, 35 percent of Latina/o young adults were enrolled in some form of college, up from 23 percent in 19931. These numbers are a good sign for the Latina/o community, and researchers and officials are keenly interested in making sure this trend continues. Key to this goal is ensuring that these students complete their education successfully, which includes supporting them as they face the stresses of college.

Students Face Additional Challenges

In addition to difficult classes, formative social experiences, and other factors that typically cause stress, many Latina/o students face additional challenges. The stress of adapting to a new culture and direct discrimination because of their ethnicity2-3 increase these students' chances of experiencing anxiety and other mental health issues, which can also increase their chances of dropping out of college4.

Treatments and interventions oriented to Latina/o culture might be one way to help. Previous studies have found that Latina/o individuals who strongly identify with certain cultural values seem to experience fewer mental health symptoms relative to individuals who don't identify as strongly with these values5. It could be that bolstering cultural identity serves a protective function. By integrating cultural values into therapies and interventions, mental health professionals could lessen the stresses felt by Latina/o students and improve their chances of completing their degree.

Familismo and Respeto

Dr. Rosalie Corona of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues investigated the interaction between culturally related stresses and cultural values among Latina/o college students6. The researchers recruited 198 college students between the ages of 18 and 25 who self-identified as Latina/o or Hispanic. In particular, they were interested in the Latina/o cultural values of familismo and respeto, which are often tightly intertwined.

Familismo is a value that involves a strong connection and attachment to the family, both immediate and extended7. Respeto refers to maintaining respect for one's elders and showing them deference in interpersonal interactions8. Researchers have found that valuing either familismo9 or respeto10 is associated with better mental health for Latina/o young adults.

Dr. Corona and her colleagues examined both cultural values together to better understand how they might play a role in mental health. Their research showed that students who reported greater stress adapting to a new culture and perceived discrimination also experienced greater symptoms of anxiety, depression, and general psychological stress. But those who strongly associated with familismo or respeto seemed less affected by these stresses and were less likely to report symptoms of anxiety. The researchers also found that those who valued familismo were less likely to report depressive symptoms or high levels of psychological stress.

Valuing both familismo and respeto were associated with decreased anxiety in response to these stressors, but familismo appears to have a broader effect, reducing symptoms of anxiety as well as of depression and general psychological distress.

Significance for Mental Health Professionals

This study may have important implications for mental health professionals who work with Latina/o college students. It suggests that when designing interventions to help these students with their stressors, it would be beneficial to keep familismo and respeto and other Latina/o cultural values in mind. It seems clear that individuals within this community benefit from having a strong sense of these values as they face the culturally related stresses in many college environments.

One open question remains: How does holding such values help Latina/o students? One possibility is that they also have closer family ties, so when faced with stressors, they have a solid social support system to help them make it through. With that in mind, mental health professionals who make sure that Latina/o students have adequate social support could well mitigate the stressors.

Although there is still much to learn, these findings will help point future researchers in a direction leading to programs and interventions that improve the college experiences of Latina/o students.

Date of original publication:


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