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Latino Youth: Overcoming Challenges to Mental Health and Access to Care

  • October 03, 2019
  • Anxiety, Depression, Diverse populations, Patients and Families, Trauma

Latino youth are more likely than their peers to have mental health issues, which often go unaddressed and untreated, according to a recent review of research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

About one-third of the Latino high school students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. More than one in seven Latino high school students seriously considered attempting suicide. Latino youth are also less likely than their peers to receive needed mental health services.

Many Latino youth face several stressors related to family life and to community/school that can impact their mental health. Family stressors may include balancing two cultures or adapting to U.S. culture; parent-child differences in culture and language; and defined family roles (such as traditional gender roles with males having more freedom and fewer family obligations). Community or school stressors, including discrimination, poverty, bullying and violence, are associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in Latino youth.

A recent study identified both family- related factors and community factors that can increase or decrease the likelihood of Latino youth accessing mental health care. Family language and cultural issues, lack of connection to school and community programs, or distrust of public systems can be barriers to accessing services. On the other hand, strong, positive parent-youth relationships and engagement in school and community programs can help increase the likelihood of accessing needed treatment.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation review identified interventions that can help to reduce family and community stressors and can have a positive effect on the mental health of Latino children and youth. They found that regular exercise and sports participation have shown to be effective at improving mental health symptoms among Latino children and adolescents. Community-based interventions also show promise, such as a school-based program aimed at helping Latino immigrant elementary and middle school children with PTSD or trauma-related depression. Latino students participating in a series of cognitive therapy-based group sessions with a bilingual school social worker experienced significant reductions in PTSD and depression symptoms compared to a control group.

In addressing mental health problems in Latino youth, research has shown that culturally adapted, evidence-based parenting interventions can be effective. For example, one study compared two versions of the evidence-based parenting intervention (GenerationPMTO©.) One version was primarily focused on parent training and the other included sessions focused on immigration-related challenges, such as discrimination. They concluded that it is important to directly address discrimination and cultural challenges.

“The relevance of culturally adapted parenting interventions has become more prominent as vulnerable Latinx populations are exposed to considerable contextual stressors resulting from an increasingly anti-immigration climate in the country,” note the study authors led by Gabriela López Zerón, Ph.D., with the University of Michigan.

Note: Latinx is the gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent, sometimes used in place of Latino or Latina.


  • Ramirez, AG, et al. Mental health and Latino Kids: A Research Review. RWJF, 2017.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.
  • Rodriguez, Em, Smith, L. Provider Perspectives on Stressors, Support, and Access to Mental Health Care for Latinx Youth. 2019. Qualitative Health Research. Jul 24:1049732319857695

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