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ASU professors contribute to special issue on pandemic's impact on Latino families

Research found Latino families disproportionally impacted by COVID-19

Man loading box of food into car

ASU graduate and Community Action Program case officer Esteban Fuerte loads groceries for families in need during August 2020 as part of ASU’s COVID-19 Response Team in the town of Guadalupe, Arizona. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

February 23, 2024

Three Arizona State University professors co-authored five of 10 articles in a special issue of the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology that examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Latino families and youth.

José Causadias, an associate professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, was the lead editor of the issue, which was published in early February.

Fiorella Carlos Chavez, an assistant professor in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and Cristalís Capielo Rosario, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, also wrote articles based on their research.

Causadias said the issue was borne out of reports that showed Latino families were disproportionally affected by the pandemic, experiencing a higher number of deaths, economic adversity, parental stress and mental health problems.

ASU News talked to Causadias and Chavez about the issue’s findings.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Can you give an overview of the issue’s findings?

Causadias: Within LatinxA gender neutral term for Latino. families, we saw that children living across the U.S.-Mexico border experienced orphanhood at a disproportionate rate. More than 20,000 Latinx children living in California, Texas and New Mexico lost one or two parents to the pandemic. That’s a traumatic event, and it forced a lot of children to move in with their grandparents or other family members. Also, Latinx adults were more likely than non-Latinx people to know someone who had died of COVID.

And among all groups in the U.S., Latinx parents reported the highest level of parental stress because the pandemic was conflated with economic adversity that existed before. Latinx people, adults specifically, were overrepresented in what we call essential workers. A lot of them had to be working in positions where they couldn't get personal protective equipment or social distancing. So they were overly exposed. And by living in multigenerational households, sometimes they brought COVID home and impacted their family members.

Q: Fiorella, what was the specific area of your research?

Chavez: The bulk of my work is looking at Latino migrant farmworkers who are essential workers, their mental health and the different challenges they experience. In this study in particular, we focused on Mexican American/Mexican descent adolescents, ages 13 to 17, confronting several COVID-19 related stressors during 2020 and early 2021. What we found was that more than half of these adolescents had their parents or caregivers as essential workers.

Then, I wanted to examine the effects of COVID-19 related stressors — i.e., household economic stress, academic stress — on adolescents' psychological distress. That’s something we haven’t had to deal with before. We never had to ask, “How likely is it that one of your family members will lose their job because of COVID-19 in the next three months?" Or, "How has the pandemic affected our grades?” What we found was that both the academic stress in relation to COVID-19 and the economic stress that was affecting their parents was also affecting the adolescents’ mental health. They were showing higher levels of psychological distress, which is an indicator for depression and anxiety.

Q: Your research also shows that the mental health impact was worse on adolescent Latinx boys than girls. Why was that?

Chavez: I attribute that to different cultural factors. I think adolescent boys, especially in the Latino culture, it’s not unusual for them to financially contribute. Maybe they felt they couldn’t do that (during the pandemic). Maybe they thought, “I can’t get a job, or I'm too young to get a job, or it’s dangerous to get a job, or there’s no work.” And then there’s the pressure of still having to do well at school. So that added even more stress and poor mental health outcomes.

Q: We’re past the height of the pandemic. But is there a concern on your part that the effects of the pandemic on these adolescents is going to be long-lasting?

Chavez: Absolutely. Clearly, our findings show that these families may not have savings to live off for a few months, not even a year to cover basic human needs like housing, food and clothing if one or both of the main caregivers were to lose their job. Parents who are essential workers in non-health care fields may not only be living paycheck to paycheck, but some of them have a very vulnerable and precarious documentation status.

So if the parent is an undocumented essential worker, that adds another layer of stress to the family because they are more likely not to ask for help from the government or any other entity for fear of retaliation.

Q: Moving forward, what can be done to help Latinx families?

Causadias: We need to provide better and more consistent access to mental health services that are affordable and culturally tailored to families that are so diverse. The needs of Puerto Ricans who are Americans is not the same as refuges from Venezuela or undocumented immigrants from Central America. We need to create policies and programs in states like Arizona and at the federal level that can support these families.

For example, Latinx families with children who are orphaned might need different care than those who are dealing with depression. We also need to do a better job of reaching (Latinx people under the age of 30) who are dealing with mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety. So we need to do a better job of reaching diverse ethnic groups and preventing mental health problems that eventually affect their ability to work and have relationships.

Q: What does it say about ASU that its authors were largely responsible for this special issue?

Causadias: This is something for ASU to feel proud about because this shows that ASU is at the forefront of these issues and is a Hispanic-Serving Institution. All of us work in different departments, too. So it just shows you the interdisciplinary nature of ASU, the talent that we have in the faculty and how we’re committed to serving our community by doing the best science we can.

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