Linked for Latino well-being

Research into Latino and Latina well-being benefits from culturally aware approaches, like the one that showed common time-out strategies recommended for parents of children with ADHD made little sense in the contexts of Latino families.

As Latino populations grow, researchers collaborate to address their well-being needs.

By Sarah Painter Koziol

Shortly after Dr. Alyson Gerdes arrived on campus in 2004, she opened a childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder specialty clinic in Marquette’s Center for Psychological Services to provide treatment to families in need. The associate professor of psychology quickly learned that a significant share of these families was Latino, struggling to find local health care practitioners who could speak Spanish and recognize the group’s cultural needs.

In the decade since, Gerdes’ efforts to help Latino children with ADHD include developing improved assessment tools for Spanish-speaking children, providing Latino mothers and fathers with parent training sessions in their native tongue, and, most recently, adapting treatments to remove culturally conflicting elements.

The strategic use of timeouts, for example, is a mainstay of standard parent training modules, says Gerdes. “But we found our Latino parents had two major issues: It was pretty incongruent with their notion of familism, to isolate a child from the rest of the family, and timeouts were not a strong enough discipline for a child who demonstrated repeated disrespect to elders.”

If Gerdes had arrived on campus more recently, she would have encountered a university actively collaborating on efforts to improve the well-being of the Latino community. The roots of the collaboration formed around the same time Gerdes joined Marquette with two colleagues — Drs. Lisa Edwards and Lucas Torres — who would later join the Marquette faculty but were then enrolled in post-doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame.

“We were in awe at how well Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies brought people together from different disciplines and fostered collaboration in research,” says Edwards, now an associate professor of counselor education and counseling psychology in Marquette’s College of Education.

“We wanted to develop a similar intellectual space to generate and collaborate on Latino research here at Marquette, and we knew that would fill a great need in the Milwaukee community,” adds Torres, an associate professor of psychology in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences.

More than a year ago, the two began the launch of Marquette’s Latina/Well-being Research Initiative. Though Torres and Edwards teach different disciplines in different colleges, they share firsthand cultural experiences that motivate their pursuits of Latino-related research, as well as a belief that collaboration would be the most productive path to impacting Latino communities near and far.

Illustration by Sophie Casson

The co-directors summoned the diverse and numerous campus players who were already involved in Latino-related issues, such as Gerdes, with the hope that once introduced they would collaborate on interdisciplinary research projects driven by genuine community needs and, in turn, earn more grant money. The LWRI’s ultimate goal is to improve Latino well-being: an umbrella for efforts addressing disparities in mental and physical health care; immigration; education for those who are undocumented; and the role of family.

The LWRI is a young year old, and already the initial dialogue has energized the estimated 25–30 faculty, administrators and students who came forward. In March, the LWRI and Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion will sponsor speaker Dr. William Perez, an associate professor of education at Claremont Graduate University who is an expert on college students without documentation, or DREAMers, as they are commonly known. The co-directors are excited about the initiative’s first public effort to raise awareness of Latino issues, especially in this context of higher education.

“We will be much more successful at generating grant dollars and providing sustainable resources to the Latino community if we can pool our resources instead of each of us working alone,” says Gerdes. “There are some fantastic opportunities that would not be available without the initiative.”

Torres agrees. His interdisciplinary adaptive functioning research project with Dr. Grant Silva, an assistant professor of philosophy, would not have happened without the initiative. The two are studying how Latinos personally grow from negative cultural experiences, like discrimination, and use them as motivation to achieve higher goals or view the world in more complex and sophisticated ways. “Can we learn why some Latinos demonstrate this resiliency and then apply it to others? We want to share what we learn so others might find that same success,” says Torres.

Culturally relevant research mentors

Edwards’ current research involves the mental well-being of Latina mothers during pregnancy and postpartum. She has witnessed a lack of support for Latinas at a critical juncture when women may already feel vulnerable and isolated. Often lacking insurance and unable to find bilingual and bicultural practitioners, some Latina mothers also face additional stressors such as safety concerns, complex family systems, trauma from migration and discrimination.

Illustration by Sophie Casson
“It’s a crisis here, as it is everywhere,” Edwards explains. “The stress a mother experiences has a profound impact on her baby for years to come. It’s an important area for intervention.”

Edwards has completed the first phase of this research involving practitioner feedback and plans to talk with the mothers themselves to determine what resources are needed and where. Edwards is collaborating with graduate students on this project; another focus of the initiative is to encourage research mentoring and training with undergraduate and graduate students.

“We take the idea of teaching students culturally relevant research seriously,” she says. “The only way to get a new generation of researchers that is sensitive to that is training them early and getting them involved.”

Doctoral student Leticia Vallejo, Arts ’10, Grad ’13, who works in Torres’ Mental Health Disparities Lab, concurs. “I had no idea that there were researchers who studied some of the experiences I had had, and I was excited about the possibility of being involved in that process,” she says.

Improving the well-being of Latinos requires better access to resources; more culturally aware service providers; and an alliance with the community organizations that serve the Latino population, according to Torres and Edwards. Establishing partnerships with these organizations is so imperative that the two sought the advice of several of them as they structured this initiative.

Al Castro, health research program director of the United Community Center, was one of those connections, and he agrees with the symbiotic nature of his center’s relationship with the LWRI.

“The United Community Center is able to provide valuable guidance, as well as community access,” he says. “In turn, UCC and the Latino community we serve would benefit from the expansion of structured, evidence-based interventions and strategies to improve the health and well-being of Latinos in Milwaukee.”

Stay up to date on this initiative: marquette.edu/latino-well-being.


“Together for well-being” is adapted from the 2016 issue of Marquette’s Discover magazine, where you’ll find more great stories on research, scholarship and innovation at Marquette.
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