Nearly half of all Latino adults living in the United States say discrimination is part of their daily experience, and this impacts their mental health. Is the same true of teens? A new small-scale study from researchers at NYU and the City University of New York finds the mental health of Hispanic adolescents improves as they age, yet second-generation teens are more affected by discrimination-related stress than first-generation teens.

Latinos are considered the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the U.S. While currently Hispanics comprise 15 percent of the total population, it is estimated that, with one-third still under age 18, they will comprise 29 percent by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center. So what do their lives look like today?

According to Pew, a third of all Hispanics under the age of 18 live in poverty; the percentage is lower, 21.3 percent, for those between 18 and 65, while among seniors the figure is just under one in five. The underlying reason for such a high rate of poverty does not appear to be language-based; most Hispanics speak English very well, according to Pew, with only 13.1 percent under the age of 17 categorized as speaking "less than very well." However, among those over age 18, a much greater portion (40 percent) spoke less than very well, with a wide chasm separating foreign born (68.2 percent speak less than well) from native born (only 10.6 percent) speakers.

When compared to all other racial/ethnic groups, Hispanics had the lowest rate (9.1 percent) of non-family living arrangements no matter whether native or foreign born. Among those who worked in the last five years, 12.1 percent listed their occupation as office and administrative support; 11.5 percent as installation, repairs, and production; 10 percent as sales; 9.1 percent as cleaning and maintenance; 8.9 percent as construction and extraction; 8.8 percent as food preparation and service; 8.2 percent as transportation and material moving, 7.3 percent as management and business, with any other occupation under five percent of the total. It might be safe to say, then, that most Latinos work in so-called pink and blue collar professions, which are accompanied by stigma in most ethnic groups.

Sensitivity Levels

Though the many nuances of discrimination may be unclear, the stress-related effects of bias are vivid and quite real, say the researchers of the current study. They looked at a total of 173 teens of Hispanic heritage attending New York City high schools. From a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, the Latino teens included a substantial portion of immigrant students. For the study, the first generation and second generation teens answered questions about discrimination-related stress, their symptoms of anxiety and depression, and their sleeping habits a total of three times over three years between grades 10 and 12.

After analyzing the results, the researchers say the mental health for both groups of students improved overall. Specifically, symptoms of anxious depression (nervousness, fearfulness, agitation) and sleep problems diminished during the study period. However, some symptoms — including loneliness and feeling worthless — decreased from grades 10 to 11 and then increased slightly again in grade 12, before the teens were about to enter the world.

Among second-generation Latino students, the researchers found a link between bias-related stress and increases in symptoms. The same, though, was not true for their first-generation peers. The researchers theorize foreign born teens are protected by a stronger attachment to their heritage. Plus, they say, later generations are more atune to the culture and so they may be more aware of and sensitive to discrimination.

Source: Sirin SR, Rogers-Sirin L, Cressen J, et al. Discrimination-Related Stress Effects on the Development of Internalizing Symptoms Among Latino Adolescents. Child Development. 2015.