- Latinx teens have higher rates of depression and persistent sadness than their peers and are less likely to receive mental health support.
- Marvyn Arévalo Avalos, an expert in interventions to support the Latinx community, shares insights about reaching Latinx young people.
- Technology is likely to be an effective way to deliver culturally-tailored interventions to Latinx youth.
This year, for National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, I set out to understand more about digital mental health supports for Latinx teens. “Latinx” youth, meaning the population of young people living in the United States whose family backgrounds originate in a Latin-American cultural or ethnic identity, is vast and diverse. A quarter of the 43 million adolescents aged 10 to 19 in the United States identify as Latinx, with origins in 20 Latin American nations and Spain.
There are some notable mental health disparities experienced by Latinx young people. Latinx youth are more likely to experience indicators of depression than teens of other ethnic origins. In 2021, 46% of Latinx high schoolers reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a higher percentage than among Black, White, or Asian students, and this number has risen steadily over the past few years. Latinx youth are also less likely to feel close to people at school than teens of other ethnic backgrounds. Factors shown to influence mental health experiences of Latinx youth include the migration experience, family issues, and community and school factors. And, compared to White youth, Latinx youth are less likely to receive mental health services.
On a positive note, research has shown that community-based and culturally-tailored interventions have shown promise in improving access to mental health support for young Latinx people. I wondered whether culturally-tailored digital communities might be particularly supportive for Latinx youth.
What does it mean to “culturally-tailor” a mental health support tool to a specific population?
Cultural tailoring is ensuring an intervention is culturally responsive to the group it plans to serve. In therapy, culturally-sensitive treatment takes into account a client’s background, ethnicity, values and/or other aspects of their identity in the way we deliver care.
Marvyn Arévalo Avalos, a psychologist and postdoctoral scholar in the Latinx Center of Excellence in Behavioral Health at the U.C. Berkeley School of Social Welfare, and an expert on this topic says to culturally tailor a mental health intervention is to “consider how a person's culture and lived experiences shape their attitudes toward, understanding of, and approaches to addressing their mental health.”
Arévalo Avalos provides examples of cultural tailoring, including, “translating content to a person's preferred language(s), adding culturally relevant messages and images, and including people from those populations in the design/implementation process.”
Why might Latinx teens need mental health support just for them?
Culture plays a large role in explaining why Latinx teens are less likely than their peers to seek and receive mental health support. Arévalo Avalos explains that there are unique socio-political challenges that may negatively influence Latinx teens’ mental health.
Some of these unique experiences include “chronic stress and a negative impact on their mental health due to issues of racism and discrimination, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant policies, family separations due to forced migration/deportation, parent-child conflicts arising from acculturation gaps, growing up in poverty or in under-resourced communities, or stigma related to seeking mental health supports.”
A recent study on caregiver attitudes toward mental health struggles and treatment helped explain some of these challenges. Researchers at the University of Denver and the University of Kansas found that as caregivers became more integrated into U.S. mainstream culture, they were more likely to recognize their teens’ mental health struggles as problematic and worthy of treatment.
What are some ways technology can help Latinx young people with their mental health?
Arévalo Avalos believes technology can help to promote health equity among Latinx young people by facilitating culturally-tailored support. When technology-based supports are designed with Latinx youth in mind, they are most likely to be effective. His examples include, “a mental health wellness app offered in English, Spanish, or ‘Spanglish’ to allow Latinx young people to engage with the content in the language(s) they prefer,” and teletherapy programs that connect young people to “Latinx-identified, and other culturally-humble therapists.”
What does the research show on the intersection of technology and mental health support for Latinx young people?
A lot of the work with tailored interventions for Latinx populations has focused on adults and text messaging. A 2021 review of 23 studies of mobile health interventions for Latinx populations found that text messaging was effective in delivering reminders to take medication and attend medical/mental health appointments, especially when a live person, like a community health worker, provided support. Further, the combination of text messaging and more engaging interactive support, like from a mobile app, was promising.
The Latinx community may benefit even more from digital interventions than White people. In a study that used a text message intervention with Latinx and White adults, researchers at the U.C. Berkeley found that after receiving two text messages a day for 60 days, Latinx adults had a greater reduction in symptoms of depression than White adults, and were more likely to say they would want to continue the program beyond two months and recommend it to a friend.
More studies are needed that test digital interventions with Latinx teens. Arévalo Avalos points out that Latinx youth are just as likely as their White and Black counterparts to have a smartphone or go online for health-related information, suggesting culturally-tailored digital supports are likely to be as helpful for teens as they are for adults. There is a need to create more and better digital supports that aid the specific experience of Latinx youth today.
How can we make better digital mental health support for Latinx youth?
Research and experience have helped guide best practices in designing digital interventions for Latinx youth.
- Consider diversity within the Latinx community. While studies like those described in this piece are important for understanding how to better support Latinx youth, Arévalo Avalos points out that “the Latinx community is not homogenous, and, thus, to ‘culturally-tailor’ a support for this community also means to consider cultural differences within Latinx youth.” Working collaboratively with teens from diverse backgrounds within the Latinx community is likely to ensure that digital support reflects their varied experiences and perspectives.
- Make access easy. Arévalo Avalos cautions that, inasmuch as technology can facilitate access to mental health supports, it can also create further disparities by leaving out those who don’t have access to the latest and greatest technology. Designing apps that don’t require a data connection for all content, or providing multiple ways for a teen to access a live support system (e.g., texting, phone, and/or video) can support all youth regardless of the type of phone or data plan they have.
- Consider levels of tailoring. True “cultural tailoring” goes beyond just language translation (e.g., Spanish for Latinx youth who prefer it), and takes into account the rich experiences that embody a person’s mental health.
Here are some existing resources designed to support the mental health needs of Latinx individuals:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: Resources for mental health in the Latinx community
- Therapy for Latinx: A directory for Latinx individuals
- Psychology Today: A directory of Latinx therapists
- A curated list of additional resources for the Latinx community
As summer comes to an end and Latinx youth return to school, having access to digital mental health support that is culturally tailored, supportive, and reflective of their needs is paramount to their health and well-being.
Bitsko, R. H. (2022). Mental Health Surveillance Among Children—United States, 2013–2019. MMWR Supplements, 71. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.su7102a1
Galvan, T., & Gudiño, O. G. (2021). Understanding Latinx youth mental health disparities by problem type: The role of caregiver culture. Psychological Services, 18(1), 116–123. https://doi.org/10.1037/ser0000365
Gonzalez, C., Early, J., Gordon-Dseagu, V., Mata, T., & Nieto, C. (2021). Promoting Culturally Tailored mHealth: A Scoping Review of Mobile Health Interventions in Latinx Communities. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 23(5), 1065–1077. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10903-021-01209-4
Haro-Ramos, A., Rodriguez, H. P., & Aguilera, A. (2022). Effectiveness and Implementation of a Text Messaging Intervention to Reduce Depression and Anxiety Symptoms Among Latinx and White Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Iproceedings, 8(1), e39309. https://doi.org/10.2196/39309
Jones, S. E. (2022). Mental Health, Suicidality, and Connectedness Among High School Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic—Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Supplements, 71. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.su7103a3