Purpose: Sparse research has examined the mental health status of immigrant and visible minority youth, especially Southeast Asian youth in Canada. Even less research has considered the link between acculturation and mental health or the role of protective factors on the mental health of these youth. This study investigated gender and acculturation-related differences in mental health and identified protective factors that buffer against emotional distress among Southeast Asian youth in British Columbia.
Methods: We analyzed data from the 2008 BC Adolescent Health Survey, a cluster-stratified school-based random sample of grade 7-12 students from across British Columbia, Canada. Our sample included all Southeast Asian youth (Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Indonesian, Thai, etc.); weighted N 14,283. Measures included mental health (recent stress, despair, self-harm, suicidality,and self-esteem); acculturation (foreign-born status, length of time in Canada, and language spoken at home); and theorized protective factors (family connectedness, school connectedness, and ethnic identity connectedness). Mental health outcomes were compared between genders and by level of acculturation with crosstabulations using the modified Rao Scott chi square test statistic. Gender differences in level of protective factors were examined using general linear modeling and the Wald F test statistic. Age-adjusted multivariate models predicting extreme stress and extreme despair were conducted separately by gender and included acculturation measures as well as protective factors.
Results: Southeast Asian girls reported significantly higher rates of mental health issues than boys including self-harm activity (20% vs. 13%), suicidal intent (16% vs. 9%), and attempted suicide in past 12 months (9% of vs. 4%). In addition, significantly greater numbers of Southeast Asian girls experienced extreme levels of stress (17% vs. 11% of boys) and despair (10% of girls vs. 5% of boys). Greater acculturation was not significantly related in bivariate tests to self-harm, suicidal intent/behavior, or emotional distress among Southeast Asian youth. However, in the multivariate models, boys and girls who had lived in Canada for less than 5 years were more likely to report extreme levels of despair (OR 5.34 for boys; OR 4.84 for girls). Girls who had lived in Canada for less than 10 years were also more likely to report extreme despair (OR4.64) as well as extreme stress (OR2.42). Significant protective factors were family connectedness for extreme stress (OR 0.09 for boys; OR 0.07 for girls) and extreme despair (OR 0.05 for boys; OR 0.02 for girls) as well as school connectedness but only among girls for stress (OR0.07) and despair (OR0.08). Higher levels of connectedness to ethnic identity (MEIM) were associated with lower odds of despair among boys (OR 0.11) but higher odds of stress among girls (OR 4.15).
Conclusions: Immigrant teens may be at higher risk for emotional distress, yet gender differences still exist in the mental health of Southeast Asian youth. Adolescent health providers need to be aware of gender and acculturation-related differences in emotional distress and to assess for protective factors, such as social connectedness, that may help mitigate the negative effects of stressors on adolescent mental health.