New ASU professor studies how culture protects adolescents against mental health problems, substance use

Latino adolescents have disproportionally high rates of substance use problems and rates of anxiety and depression symptoms. Though Latinos now make up almost 20% of the U.S. population and were the fastest-growing group in the 2020 census, they remain underrepresented in research studies.  

Rick Cruz, a new assistant professor in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology, is working to change that by focusing on the factors that contribute to underrepresented groups experiencing mental health or substance use problems. 

“In my work, I study people who often do not get a lot of attention in research. I aim to publish my work in mainstream academic journals to communicate the unique social and cultural experiences of ethnic minority groups,” Cruz said.

One of the focuses of Cruz’s Youth Development, Context and Prevention Lab is the impact of cultural change in American teenagers who emigrated from Mexico or who had family members who emigrated. The concept of cultural change reflects how these teenagers balance the cultural identity they get from their family and home life with American culture.

“America has a cultural richness, with a lot of different cultures and ways of thinking. My research looks at how children navigate different cultural identities. Do they choose one that fits them? Or, do they keep some parts to show off and adapt some from the mainstream environment?” Cruz said. “Ultimately, we want to know how cultural change relates to children being at risk for, or protected from, mental health problems like depression, anxiety and substance use.”

A common way to measure cultural change is by what language kids speak at home and at school. In addition to spoken language, Cruz also assesses family values and ethnic identity. His research focuses on how these three domains of culture — language, values and identity — change over time in the same group of participants. Knowing how changes happen over time lets Cruz connect specific cultural domains to future mental health problems or substance use. Findings from his research can be used to design interventions that help at-risk kids. 

“Keeping cultural heritage — including language, family customs and values and cultural identity — often helps and protects ethnic-minority teenagers from drug use and mental health problems. It is important that our interventions and policies encourage kids to keep their ethnic cultural heritage, as they also develop and strengthen their American cultural identity,” Cruz said.

Cruz also works to bring evidence-based services out of university labs and into the community. Before coming to ASU, he worked at Utah State University and served on substance abuse prevention coalitions for the state of Utah. He plans to continue that line of work in Arizona.

“It is important to me to stay connected to what is happening on the ground in the community and make sure that families have easy access to evidence-based information and services that help children have positive mental health and substance use outcomes,” Cruz said.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne
kmcclur4@asu.edu