Understanding the role of genetics in depression, substance use

Graduate student receives award for early career research on mental health and substance abuse

ASU grad student Belal Jamil smiling at the camera in an outdoor setting.

Belal Jamil, an ASU doctoral psychology graduate student specializing in the developmental psychology training area, hopes to use his research to both inform future projects but also to motivate interventions for minority populations. Photo courtesy the Department of Psychology


According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, over 50% of teenagers report misusing drugs at least once, and 62% of high school seniors report having abused alcohol. In addition, a recent report from the American Psychological Association highlights that racial and ethnic minority adolescents have to contend with stressors related to multiple minoritized identities (i.e., socioeconomic status, documentation status), which increases their risk for the development of substance-use problems and depression or anxiety. 

Belal Jamil is an Arizona State University doctoral psychology graduate student specializing in the developmental psychology training area. He hopes to better understand how genetics, cultural factors, family processes and parenting can influence substance use and the development of depression and anxiety in adolescence and emerging adulthood (18–26 years).

“I’m specifically interested in that age range because that's when a lot of these problems start to develop,” Jamil said. “Many intervention approaches have been very helpful and useful, but they've only been tested within these specific demographics. There are different cultural or family values that exist within other cultural, racial or ethnic groups, and those can have a much more significant impact on the success of these different interventions.”

Jamil is a second-generation Pakistani American and recently received the Cialdini Developmental Psychology Early Graduate Career Award, which recognizes his excellent scholarship and early career research. Additionally, he recently applied for an NSF fellowship for his work on promoting health and well-being among underserved populations. 

“My research interest is kind of niche — I want to look at behavioral genetics, or how genetics influence people's psychological development and substance use. Specifically, I want to look at that question within ethnic minority populations because right now in ... literature, a lot of the focus is on people of European ancestry and predominantly white populations. This doesn't really translate as well to other ethnic and racial groups,” Jamil said.

Jamil is mentored by Jinni Su, an assistant professor who leads the Genes, Environment, and Youth Development lab. Su recently published a study about the link between personality, genetics, racial discrimination and problematic drinking, and has begun to translate addiction and mental health research for the Chinese American population. 

“Belal is purely amazing! His award is well deserved, and will provide important support as he continues his impactful research on understanding pathways of risk and resilience to substance use and mental health outcomes among minoritized populations,” Su said. 

Su and Jamil recently began working on research about the bidirectional impacts of adolescent depression on teens and their parents. Past research suggests that parental depression can negatively impact teenagers, but it is also possible that teenagers’ depression can negatively impact their parents’ mental health.

“One of the studies that we're working on right now is looking at things like substance use and mental health outcomes among white students and non-white, minority college students, and really looking at that within the context of COVID,” Jamil said. “We're hoping to see how different factors might influence variations and like adjustment and ability to cope with COVID.”

In a similar study about the stress of transitioning into college, Jamil and Su also found that among white participants, a romantic partner’s social support was associated with lower depression, but that same association wasn’t found among minority students, suggesting that within the transition to college, there might be differences in the amount of social support available, and romantic relationships did not mitigate that stress in some populations. 

Jamil hopes to use his research to both inform future projects but also to motivate interventions for minoritized populations. 

“As of right now, my goal with research is to inform these intervention and prevention efforts that we have,” Jamil said, “specifically with things like substance use — that's really a big problem on college campuses, and especially in the context of COVID-19, we see increases in things like alcohol use and in smoking and cannabis use. Because of that, I think it's really important to understand how it might not be that ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and instead look at how these pathways might be different depending on upbringing and background.”

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