Preventing Internalizing Psychopathology in Preadolescents Exposed to Chronic Stress

Project: Research project

Project Details


? DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Mental health problems are proportionately affect racial and ethnic minority populations, as well as populations that face chronic economic hardship (Evans, Wolf & Adler, 2012). There is clear evidence that (1) the processes that lay the groundwork for mental health disparities is laid during childhood (e.g., Chen & Miller, 2012) and (2) that damage to and dysregulation of the physiologic stress response is a powerful mechanism of the effects of chronic stress such as that associated with poverty on psychopathology (e.g., Evans & Kim, 2012). To contribute solutions to mental health disparities, we need interventions capable of affecting the systems that confer the risk. Since the psychobiologic stress response system (e.g., hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal axis; HPA) is a central mechanism linking health disparities to chronic stress, the stress response is a critical system to target. Improving children's ability to cope with stress and regulate their reactivity ha the potential to break the cycle of damage, especially if the coping strategies and regulatory processes that we target have effects at the physiologic level. Preliminary evidence from the PIs research lab has emerged showing that different types of coping are evident at the level of the HPA-it is, therefore, time to evaluate whether a coping intervention designed for children facing chronic stress will both (a) improve children's ability to use primary and secondary control coping, and (b) have sustained effects at the physiologic level. We have developed just such an intervention, which builds on these exciting new findings and is designed to address core underlying mechanisms of risk and repair in the highly stressful context of poor, urban youths' lives. Preadolescence is a crucial time during which children's ability to recognize stress and it causes matures, and repertoires for coping with stress grow in both size and complexity. In addition, preadolescence is a time of increased brain changes and growth in key self-regulatory organs and systems. Preadolescents are, therefore, at a ripe stage to benefit from coping-based prevention and the plasticity of this developmental period suggests that such changes have the potential to be long-lasting. Our new prevention program is designed to prevent the onset of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms in preadolescent children facing chronic stress. Two mechanisms of action are targeted in this project. First, the project seeks to demonstrate that children facing chronic stress stemming from poverty, discrimination, and violence exposure can acquire and utilize new ways of coping that are adaptive in a wide variety of circumstances. Second, the project will examine the extent to which improved coping resulting from the intervention engages the physiologic intermediate mechanism of the HPA. Finally, the project aims to link changes in coping and the HPA to changes in internalizing symptoms that would signal prevention of the emergence of new or worsening of existing symptoms. Discovery of ways to prevent and/or halt this progression of damage to a child's stress response system that leads to psychopathology can offer new directions for combatting health disparities.
Effective start/end date4/11/163/31/19


  • National Institute of Mental Health: $522,538.00
  • National Institute of Mental Health: $39,627.00
  • National Institute of Mental Health: $581,616.00


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