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Study: Young Latina Immigrants in U.S. Turning to Alcohol to Relieve Culture-Related Stress

The use of alcohol as a coping mechanism for young Latina immigrants to the U.S. may actually increase stress levels, according to a new UAlbany study. (Photo by Andrew Harnik, Associated Press)

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 10, 2017) -- A new study finds that young adult Latina immigrants who drink more alcohol to lessen the stress of their acclimation to the U.S. and its culture may actually increase the stress levels they experience.

For the study, "Alcohol use Exacerbates Acculturative Stress Among Recently Immigrated, Young Adult Latinas," published recently in the Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, University at Albany doctoral student Melissa Ertl and her co-authors tracked the alcohol use of more than 500 Hispanic women, aged 18 to 23, during a 90-day period in their first year in the U.S. – a time when acculturative stress is generally at its highest levels.

  They found that participants in the U.S. for relatively less time who drank a greater quantity of alcohol per drinking occasion tended to experience more culture-related stress than all other participants. Thus, they concluded that increased alcohol use may exacerbate acculturative stress among Latina young adults immediately after immigration.

"Adjustment to U.S. culture is intrinsically stressful due to numerous major life changes that accompany immigration,” said Ertl, who is completing her Ph.D. in counseling psychology in UAlbany’s School of Education. “Acculturative stress comprises the psychological impact of these adjustment demands, which can overwhelm the capacity to cope."

UAlbany Doctoral Student Melissa Ertl
School of Education doctoral student Melissa Ertl

"Latina young adult immigrants may benefit from a brief motivational intervention targeting alcohol use within existing culturally-tailored delivery models," said Ertl. “Few interventions have been developed to assist recently arrived Latina immigrants in their transition to US society, but our study demonstrates that this is a critical time period for health promotion.”

According to the research, newly arrived Latinas experience a substantial stress due to separation from social supports, learning a new language and culture, and encountering conflicts between norms and beliefs of one's traditional and receiving culture. In addition to alcohol use, acculturative stress is associated with negative health consequences for Latino immigrants, including feelings of loss and grief, decreased self-esteem, lower self-reported physical health, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.   

Ertl said the results also add to existing literature on gender role beliefs in Latino culture. The study found that Latina women who endorsed traditional gender role beliefs as they adjusted to a new society (i.e., the marianismo beliefs that Latinas should be the main source of strength for the family and should be subordinate and self-silencing) tended to experience more acculturative stress compared to those who did not endorse these traditional gender role beliefs.

Those women who endorsed to a greater extent the gender role belief that Latina women should be the spiritual pillars of their families, however, experienced less acculturative stress.

As expected, individuals with greater ethnic identity also reported more acculturative stress. Latina immigrants with strong ethnic identity commitment may resist adopting U.S. cultural practices, potentially leading to greater acculturative stress when their cultural values conflict with U.S. culture. Because the study site was Miami-Dade County, an ethnic enclave for foreign-born Latinos, this finding demonstrates ethnic identity commitment may associate with acculturative stress, even among individuals with limited integration into US culture.

The study also revealed: 

  • Greater ethnic identity commitment was associated with increased acculturative stress.
  • Aspects of marianismo, a traditional Latino cultural gender norm that prescribes Latinas should be family-focused, self-sacrificing, virtuous, and a source of strength, were related with increased acculturative stress. This increase in stress may be due to the experience of cultural conflict when immigrants encounter less traditional U.S. gender norms.

Methodology

Participants were 530 young adult Latina women between ages 18 and 23 who immigrated to Miami-Dade County, Fla., about 12 months prior to assessment. Seventeen percent were undocumented. Participants identified as Cuban (34 percent), Colombian (11.1), Nicaraguan (7.5), Honduran (6.4), Peruvian (5.7), Mexican (5.1), Venezuelan (4.9), Ecuadorian (3.6), Panamanian (3.6), and Dominican (3.0). Fourteen percent reported being married/cohabiting.

About Melissa Ertl

Melissa Ertl is a third-year doctoral student at UAlbany in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology with research interests in health disparities, health risk behaviors, and the intersectionality of identity and health. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Spanish from the University Wisconsin – Madison where she was also an Undergraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of Psychology.

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