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New IPR Research: February 2023

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This month’s new research from IPR faculty examines whether food security can improve mental health, the legacies of apartheid and psychiatric illness, and whether infants exposed to sign language pay attention and engage in the same ways as infants learning spoken language. It also explores conducting and framing research about White youth, why White parents should have conversations about race and racism with their children, and the extent to which community violence intervention workers in Chicago experience secondary traumatic stress. 

Social Disparities and Health

Improving Mental Health with Food Security

Various complex factors, including biology and the environment, lead to depression. An association between food security and mental health is known, but is food insecurity a cause of depression? In Public Health Nutrition, IPR anthropologist Sera Young and her colleagues evaluate whether access to food protects women against depressive symptoms. The researchers used longitudinal data from four annual household surveys in rural Tanzania conducted between 2016 and 2019. The study included 548 married women with children who were food secure, and one-third of the participants had depressive symptoms at the start of the study. They all participated in a nutrition-sensitive agriculture intervention, which typically focuses on providing nutritionally rich foods and improving one’s dietary diversity. In addition to studying food security and mental health, the program had a few extra components, including peer mentoring in sustainable farming practices and lessons on gender equity and women’s wellbeing. The results show the intervention reduced the odds of women’s depressive symptoms by 43%. These are the first results showing that nutrition-agricultural interventions and decreasing food insecurity have broader effects beyond nutrition.

Legacies of Apartheid and Psychiatric Illness 

Apartheid has had lasting consequences in South Africa, including widespread poverty, racial discrimination, and class inequality. In his study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, IPR anthropologist Christopher Kuzawa and his colleagues investigate whether prenatal stress experienced due to intergenerational trauma, meaning the effects that the trauma experienced by one generation has on subsequent generations, under apartheid impacted the mental health of children born as apartheid ended. The researchers used a longitudinal study among 304 pregnant women enrolled in 1990 in the city of Soweto-Johannesburg, a major center of violence during apartheid. Researchers questioned the women to determine their level of social adversity during their pregnancy. When their children reached ages 17 to 18, their mental health was assessed using a General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), which is a psychological screener that assesses mental health based on four scales. The researchers find that while prenatal stress caused by apartheid did not correlate with a direct increase in mental health issues in adolescents, it did cause them to be more vulnerable to mental health issues, especially if they experienced household adversity. Additionally, their research established the effects of maternal age, social support, and past household adversity on the mental health of children at age 17 or 18, which also played a key role in determining the relative psychiatric health of children. The researchers suggest that the effects of South African apartheid must be addressed to reduce the risk of mental health issues. Kuzawa is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Anthropology.

Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies

'I See What You Are Saying:' Hearing Infants’ Visual Attention and Social Engagement in Response to Spoken and Sign Language

woman signingDo infants exposed to sign language pay attention and engage in the same ways as infants learning spoken language?  IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman and her colleagues investigate this topic in their study published in Frontiers in Psychology by comparing how hearing infants, with no exposure to sign language, deploy their attention to either spoken or sign language. The researchers observed 45 infants between the ages of four and six months, none of whom had been exposed to sign language. All infants viewed a collection of colorful toy objects on a screen. What varied was how these objects were labeled. Infants in the sign language condition (22) observed as a woman labeled them in sign language (American Sign Language), and infants in the spoken language condition (23) observed as the woman labeled them in spoken language (English). The researchers measured infants’ visual attention and their spontaneous vocalizations during the task. All infants were highly engaged and vocalized equally during the task. Still, infants’ visual attention was higher in the spoken than in the sign language condition (devoting 92% vs. 80% of the available time looking in the spoken and sign conditions, respectively). These results establish that infants as young as 4- and 6-months old engage well with communicative partners using either the spoken or signed modality. This new work has implications for theories of language acquisition and should shed light on optimizing learning in deaf and hearing infants. Waxman is the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology.

Poverty, Race, and Inequality

Studying Racial/ Ethnic Identity Among White Youth

White youth, like all youth in the United States, grow up in a system of racial inequity, yet little research exists about how they make sense of their racial identity. IPR developmental psychologist Onnie Rogers and Ursula Moffitt of Wheaton College Massachusetts offer insights on framing and conducting research on how White youth understand their own racial identity in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. The researchers discuss the history of research on racial and ethnic identity development and argue that it is necessary to use different measures to understand racial identity development among White youth versus Black or Latinx youth. Helms’ White Racial Identity Development (WRID) model, or a two-phase model that examines internalization and challenges to the racist status quo, offers one framework for a contextualized study of White identity. The researchers used this model in previous research and suggest that children are aware of race at a young age, but their ability to make sense of race and racism can change with experiential knowledge and greater cognitive ability. Finally, the researchers urge scholars to use models designed to assess Whiteness in context, move beyond age-related changes to explain development, reflect on how their own identities shape their work, and apply an anti-racist lens when using terms and constructs when conducting research on racial identity among White youth.

Building Support for Parent-Child Conversations About Race

parent talking to childShould White parents have conversations about race and racism with their children? Prior research suggests that with a lack of evidence supporting the value and impact of White parent-child conversations about race, it is safer to postpone these conversations since the effects are unknown. In Perspectives on Psychological Science, however, IPR psychologist Sylvia Perry and her colleagues argue that White parents can and should have these conversations with their children. The researchers review theoretical and empirical literature about the psychological effects of parents talking to children about topics such as race. They estimate that 30% of White parents are already attempting to introduce their children to the reality of racism in the United States. Support for race conversations in White families is further boosted by research showing parent-child conversations are beneficial for navigating tough emotions and a child’s sexual health. Additionally, the researchers find a lack of evidence suggesting that nonverbal behaviors, such as visible discomfort on part of the parents, will increase racial biases, as other researchers state. Although Perry and her co-authors understand that more empirical evidence to support their conclusion is needed, they call for White parents to act due to the urgency of the issue and the positive outcomes for children and society.

Urban Policy and Community Development

Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Community Violence Interventionists in Chicago

Community violence intervention (CVI) programs are a key strategy to preventing violence in the United States, but the risk of harm to those performing anti-violence work has been understudied. In a new study in Preventive Medicine, IPR sociologist Andrew Papachristos and his co-authors investigate the extent to which community violence intervention workers in Chicago experience secondary traumatic stress (STS), or stress that results from helping a traumatized or suffering person. Between March and November 2021, the researchers completed a near census of violence interventionists in Chicago using a researcher-guided survey, the Violence Intervention Worker Study (VIeWS). The participants were asked to rank how often 17 statements on the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS) were true over the last seven days, such as “I felt emotionally numb” and “I felt discouraged about the future.” The results show that 94% of workers experienced at least one of the 17 STSS items in the last seven days and 50% experienced nine out of the 17 STSS items. STS was higher for workers who saw someone get shot at while on the job, had gotten shot on the job, or had experienced the death of a client due to violence. The study reveals that community violence interventionists are at high risk for STS and even PTSD. The researchers urge violence intervention organizations to regularly screen for these conditions and offer therapeutic services to workers after traumatic events.

Photo credits: Unsplash and iStock

Published: February 22, 2023.