HHS programs collaborate to study mental health of Latinx rural and migrant worker families
Written by: Tim Brouk, firstname.lastname@example.org
Now in year two of the five-year study called the Purdue Puentes Project, faculty and students from HHS’ departments of Public Health and Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) have recruited nearly 200 families with more to be added. The participants in the spotlight are children ages 10-15.
The data collected from surveys and interviews with the families has the potential to inform programs that service the children and their families in Indiana.
HDFS Associate Professor Zoe Taylor, Public Health Associate Professor Yumary Ruiz and their team expected to see signs of depression and anxiety in the children. There are cases of such conditions but the Puentes Project — “Puentes” is Spanish for “bridges” — has uncovered much more already.
The roster of Puentes Project researchers is deep. Joining Taylor and Ruiz is HDFS postdoctoral research associate Alexia Clothilde, as well as four graduate students, Jennifer Escobedo, Fabiola Herrera, Olivya Reyes and Genesis Santiago. The faculty members’ graduate and undergraduate students assist with data collection in the form of surveys and interviews with the youth, their caregivers and teachers.
To date, participating parents are from Mexico or Central America, but more than half of the children were born in the United States. Some haven’t left Indiana’s borders since they arrived in the U.S. Others will return to Texas or Florida after being in Indiana for seasonal work.
“We’re looking at high mobility in kids and how this impacts their health but also how they think about home and what does home mean to them,” Ruiz said. “In our pilot study, some youth identified home as a geographical location. ‘Home is in Texas; home is here in Indiana.’ But for others, home was linked to whoever is around them, who is supporting them.”
The researchers will collect both quantitative and qualitative data across the project’s run. Checking in with the families every year gives more weight to the work. These follow-up interviews provide a unique opportunity to learn more in-depth information about the hardships youth and their caregivers face and the strengths they possess that allow them to overcome and grow.
“How are they overcoming those? How does that change?” Ruiz asked. “When you’re talking to a kid at 10, how does the data change when they are 11 and then it moves on and on? And how do the perceptions from the parents change as well?”
Puentes Project families must work in agricultural or factory environments or live in a rural setting to qualify to participate in the study. Some migrant families travel from Mexico or Central America in search of farm work detasselling corn or jobs in meat packing or construction. However, while the parents work, the children must navigate new settings and new schools, which can be tough for any child.
Being on the move for most of their young lives, some of the project participants have encountered instability in school and home. This instability can contribute to increases in acculturative stressors such as experiencing discrimination, isolation or language barriers, which can impact their mental health.
“We are still recruiting, so any results are preliminary. However, we have started to present initial studies of the Puentes Project at conferences. In particular, we are seeing the detrimental impact of discrimination on the youth in the study,” Taylor said. “Two of our graduate students presented posters that found that discrimination was linked to poorer school self-efficacy in one and to depression and anxiety in another. These youth already face significant challenges, such as high rates of poverty, potentially moving a lot and acculturation stressors. So, feeling marginalized and discriminated against is obviously problematic, and it is important to address things that buffer against that. Discrimination is a really salient risk factor that has a negative impact across many aspects of youth well-being.”
While some children have experienced hardships that negatively impacted their mental health, other children show remarkable resiliency, according to the research.
“There are some strengths within the individual that are very beneficial, that can help overcome many things, especially for adolescents — self-esteem, confidence, hope, optimism,” Ruiz explained. “Then there is the context. The individual adolescent is not alone. They are surrounded by their contexts — what can help them and support them — family being one of those incredibly important contexts. Beyond the family, you can look at the teachers; you can look at the school. Teachers perhaps come from the same background and can mirror the experience, or they understand, and they try to incorporate the child’s background into the education experience.”
The Puentes Project will continue into 2026. By then, the research will paint a clearer picture in understanding the dynamics of a migrant family and the mental health needs of the children within them.
“Latinx youth have some of the highest rates in terms of ethnic groups of mental health problems,” Taylor said. “It’s important to state that and focus on those things but also think about ways we can examine things that actually help and strengths in their families that contribute. Not just talking about mental health problems but addressing things like flourishing and more positive attributes.”
Ruiz added, “Enhancing cultural awareness and compassion among (service) providers can also change stigma surrounding the kids and their families. This information, we hope, could be incredibly informative for programs, interventions and even those who make policy.”