How do you define a psychologically healthy child? The answer might depend on where you live.
That’s why researchers from the College of Education’s School Psychology Program are participating in an international project to gather culture-specific information regarding mental health of youth around the world. The study, Promoting Psychological Well-Being Globally, is sponsored by the Society for the Study of School Psychology and the International School Psychology Association.
For their part in this effort, College of Education faculty Catherine Cadenhead and Kris Varjas, along with doctoral student Lisa Wells and COE graduates Catalina Morillas and Ashley Morris, traveled to Mexico, where nearly 32 percent of the population is under age 15.
“There is limited information regarding the mental health of these children,” says Cadenhead, associate professor of school psychology. “What we found in Mexico – and I think this is generally true for impoverished countries – is that psychological well-being is really on the back burner.”
In speaking with professionals from sociology, health, psychology and education, Cadenhead says, they found that terms such as “mental health” were not typically used by the general population in Mexico.
“There’s not a very sophisticated language for talking about individuals who might have issues in terms of their psychological well-being,” Cadenhead said. “They don’t really talk about depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or ADHD or any of those kinds of terms that we would use to label psychological issues.”
Not using specific terms for a wide range of conditions does not mean they don’t exist, however.
The study found that stressors influencing the mental health of children and adolescents in Mexico include family difficulties, homelessness, child labor, separation from adult caregivers and lack of human rights. And these conditions result in negative mental health outcomes such as depression, withdrawal, school truancy and behavioral aggression.
Factors affecting mental health assistance include marginalization, discrimination, poverty, lack of health insurance, social stigma, and lack of adequate services.
The study found that schools in Mexico have limited mental health resources (e.g., counselors and psychologists), yet schools were still seen as a primary source of support for delivery of mental health services for youth.
Cadenhead says her group collected data in two phases. Results from the first phase with professional stakeholders will be published in School Psychology International. They are still in the process of analyzing results from the second phase, which included children, parents and school administrators.
“There’s a term in Mexico, simpatia, which in general refers to just being able to get along with people,” Cadenhead says. “The overall sense is that’s what they’re looking for – for people to be generally agreeable with others. The term and outcome are very culture specific.”
Once the research is concluded, mental health professionals and educators in Mexico will have a more complete picture of how to better assist children with psychological issues based on their culture’s definition of mental health.
This story was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.