New ASU professor studies how culture protects adolescents against mental health problems, substance use

October 25, 2021

Latino adolescents have disproportionally high rates of substance use problems and rates of anxiety and depression symptoms. Though Latinos now make up almost 20% of the U.S. population and were the fastest-growing group in the 2020 census, they remain underrepresented in research studies.  

Rick Cruz, a new assistant professor in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology, is working to change that by focusing on the factors that contribute to underrepresented groups experiencing mental health or substance use problems.  Rick Cruz, assistant professor of psychology. Rick Cruz, assistant professor of psychology. Photo by Robert Ewing/ASU Download Full Image

“In my work, I study people who often do not get a lot of attention in research. I aim to publish my work in mainstream academic journals to communicate the unique social and cultural experiences of ethnic minority groups,” Cruz said.

One of the focuses of Cruz’s Youth Development, Context and Prevention Lab is the impact of cultural change in American teenagers who emigrated from Mexico or who had family members who emigrated. The concept of cultural change reflects how these teenagers balance the cultural identity they get from their family and home life with American culture.

“America has a cultural richness, with a lot of different cultures and ways of thinking. My research looks at how children navigate different cultural identities. Do they choose one that fits them? Or, do they keep some parts to show off and adapt some from the mainstream environment?” Cruz said. “Ultimately, we want to know how cultural change relates to children being at risk for, or protected from, mental health problems like depression, anxiety and substance use.”

A common way to measure cultural change is by what language kids speak at home and at school. In addition to spoken language, Cruz also assesses family values and ethnic identity. His research focuses on how these three domains of culture — language, values and identity — change over time in the same group of participants. Knowing how changes happen over time lets Cruz connect specific cultural domains to future mental health problems or substance use. Findings from his research can be used to design interventions that help at-risk kids. 

“Keeping cultural heritage — including language, family customs and values and cultural identity — often helps and protects ethnic-minority teenagers from drug use and mental health problems. It is important that our interventions and policies encourage kids to keep their ethnic cultural heritage, as they also develop and strengthen their American cultural identity,” Cruz said.

Cruz also works to bring evidence-based services out of university labs and into the community. Before coming to ASU, he worked at Utah State University and served on substance abuse prevention coalitions for the state of Utah. He plans to continue that line of work in Arizona.

“It is important to me to stay connected to what is happening on the ground in the community and make sure that families have easy access to evidence-based information and services that help children have positive mental health and substance use outcomes,” Cruz said.

Science writer, Psychology Department


High school students explore theater career opportunities with ASU Gammage's School to Work Program

October 25, 2021

With its first field trip opportunity in 18 months, ASU Gammage’s School to Work provided high school students with a unique experience and new understanding of careers within the world of professional theater on Sept. 29.

Sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Abbett Family Foundation, School to Work is one of the many educational programs provided by ASU Gammage.  ASU Gammage welcomed theater students from the Phoenix Union High School District, leading them in interactive workshops about the various departments involved in theater, as well as talking about college preparedness. Download Full Image

“It's a day that's devoted to teaching high school theater students about career opportunities in the theater that are not that are not performing careers,” said Desiree Ong, ASU Gammage Education Program Manager.

ASU Gammage welcomed theater students from Title I schools within the Phoenix Union High School District, leading them in interactive workshops about the departments of programming, marketing, development, operations, audience services and business services.

“We present them with options of what we do here at ASU Gammage, so they can start thinking about their own career path,” Ong said.

With this knowledge fresh in their minds, Access ASU Educational Outreach Director Isabel Alfaro talked to students about college preparedness and the unique resources offered by ASU.

“Presenting to students at School to Work was an amazing opportunity to highlight ASU's diverse programs and share resources with students,” Alfaro said. “Whether they are ninth graders or 12th graders, it's never too early to start preparing and thinking about their futures.”

Students were also given the opportunity to understand what it's like to work on a Broadway tour, through a discussion with Tyler Siems, associate company manager of "Hamilton."

Afterward, a field trip was taken to the ASU Library, where Julie Tanaka, librarian for the rare collections department, showed students original editions of the Federalist Papers, the Reynolds Pamphlet and George Washington’s farewell address, three documents mentioned in Act 2 of “Hamilton.” To end the day, students saw an evening performance of this world-renowned show, paid for by the Abbett Family Foundation.

“Everything was perfect — the vocals, the dancers, the emotion, the lighting and sound. It took my breath away,” said a sophomore from Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix.

For many students, it was their first time inside a professional theater, and Jeff Abbett and Jenniffer Jarvis from the Abbett Family Foundation were able to join and meet the students who benefited from their donations. 

A student from Maryvale High School, talking about the experience, said, “It's still very surreal to me; it was a dream come true.”

To learn more about ASU Gammage K–12 educational opportunities, visit

Marketing Assistant, ASU Gammage