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Study: Racial, ethnic diversity in schools impacts developmental mental health

A public health researcher found that greater school diversity lowers the risk for depressive-anxious symptoms in high-stress Latinx students
April 19, 2021

A Texas A&M researcher is discovering the demographic characteristics that can produce or lessen stress for racial and ethnic minority students in school settings.

The study, recently published in the journal Ethnicity and Disease, collected mental health survey assessments among 389 sixth-graders from 14 Texas public schools in urban areas. Melissa DuPont-Reyes, PhD, MPH, assistant professor at Texas A&M University School of Public Health, led the investigation of self-reported depressive-anxious symptoms over a two-year period. This issue of the journal highlighted research by early stage investigators, especially scholars of color, to advance new knowledge and action to address social inequities in health.

Overall, the study found that a higher percentage of non-Latinx white students in a school increases mental health risk for non-Latinx Black and Latinx students, while more racial and ethnic diversity decreases mental health risk for some Latinx students.

DuPont-Reyes built upon the data collected from the Texas Stigma Study (2011-2015), a longitudinal evaluation of a mental illness anti-stigma intervention, by adding publicly available data on the participating Texas public schools. The two data sources allowed for data points on sex, household income, parental educational attainment, family history of mental illness and past mental health service use, as well as school factors such as enrollment, socioeconomic status and performance.

Each school’s racial and ethnic density and diversity were measured as well. In this study, density refers to the percentage of non-Latinx white enrollment. Diversity signifies the range and size of all racial and ethnic groups enrolled. Dissimilarity in school racial and ethnic enrollment can produce challenges unique to racial and ethnic minorities, such as harassment, marginalization, feeling faced with different expectations and social isolation, that can significantly influence mental health. DuPont-Reyes’ team adds new knowledge about younger adolescents and Latinx groups, as well as simultaneous analysis of both diversity and density measures.

Non-Latinx Black and Latinx students, according to the results, reported double the rate of depressive-anxious symptoms compared to their non-Latinx white counterparts in schools with greater non-Latinx white enrollment. In terms of diversity, high-stress Latinx students—those that tend to experience greater levels of discrimination—saw about a fifth the rate of depressive-anxious symptoms compared to their non-Latinx white counterparts in schools with greater racial and ethnic diversity. Non-Latinx white students saw greater symptoms with increasing diversity in schools.

These findings are important as school-aged populations in the United States are ethnically diverse, yet integrative curriculum and enrollment policies have remained at a standstill or worsened in some areas. DuPont-Reyes’ team examined these students at the precipice of when mental health symptoms emerge. Student mental health is important because it is related to well-being, academic success, school retention and the prevention of poor health in adulthood. Studies like this are key to creating school environments that foster equity and implement effective strategies to mitigate mental health risks to vulnerable students.

– by Laura Larocca

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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