Although the pervasive and life-long effects of childhood experiences of adversity on physical and mental health outcomes are now well-documented, much less is understood about the relative impact of different levels of adverse experiences. A bioecological perspective considers adversity at multiple system levels, including environmental, community, family and individual levels. Risk factors at each of those levels can impact children’s developing neurobiologically based systems of self-regulation, which in turn, can have critical implications for their social-emotional development and mental health.
What are the system levels we are studying?
We are conducting research that examines a comprehensive, multi-level model of adversity and its relation to mental health in children and families. These levels of adversity include:
- Environmental hazards, such as air pollution, are known to cause several high-burden health problems such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease. New research has begun to show that air pollution might also impact mental health problems in adults. In children, research has begun to draw links between air pollution and ADHD, cognitive development and autism. We aim to examine the possible link between air pollution and children’s self-regulation and social, emotional and behavioral well-being.
- Community level exposure to crime and neighborhood deprivation is consistently shown to relate to youth mental health. A likely pathway of this effect is via stress physiology, such as dysregulation of the neuroendocrine stress response system (HPA-axis or cortisol). This is also likely to impact other aspects of children’s self-regulation, and in turn, their mental health.
- At a level closer to the child, family economic and social risk factors play a role in children’s development. Low income is a marker for the potential presence of a number of risk factors, including stressful events, residential instability, family conflict and disorganization, parental mental health problems, and many other factors. These risk factors have cumulative effects on children’s academic achievement, social competence, behavioral and emotional adjustment, in part, through their effects on children’s self-regulation.
- Parents in families experiencing low income and contextual stress find it challenging to be the best parents they can be, with a higher likelihood of being negative, harsh, or inconsistent, and this contributes to children’s self-regulation and mental health problems.
One study we are conducting is examining multiple levels of adversity in a sample of 300 children and families who have been followed longitudinally from children’s ages 3 to 12 years. We will obtain measures of environmental risk ( exposure to air pollution), and community risk (exposure to crime and neighborhood deprivation), during the study period and combine them with the extensive already-existing data on families and children.
The families equally represent the income spectrum (29% at/near poverty, 28% lower-, 25% middle-, 18% upper-income). Therefore, they experienced a range of environmental, community and family risk. In the existing study, experiences of economic disadvantage (income, financial strain) and family risk (single parent household, adolescent parent, household crowding, maternal depression, negative life events, family conflict) were assessed across early childhood.
We will examine the unique and combined contributions of environmental, community, family and individual risk to children’s developing self-regulation and mental health. In particular, we will study the effects of these risk factors on children’s developing prefrontal cortex activity (executive function), neuroendocrine stress response system (HPA-axis) and parasympathetic emotion regulation system (RSA), and in turn, children’s mental health. We will also examine protective factors at each level, including parenting and neighborhood resources.
Innovation and Implications
Research on child mental and emotional health is often siloed based on academic discipline. This approach limits our ability to better assess the many factors that influence children’s health. The interdisciplinary partnership represented in this study will be able to overcome some of these existing limitations. Further, the social determinants of health perspective emphasizes the need for understanding the many factors across multiple levels that impact it.
Our research examines both a multi-level and life course perspective to comprehensively study children’s health and well-being. Findings from this study will be shared with practice, policy, and philanthropy leaders in discussions about the implications and application of research to practice and policy.