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New study shows in a battle between hope and fear, hope wins!

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Two hands holding a rock with the works "Hope" on it.


Historically, hope has been called the belief that good things will happen in the future. However, in the social sciences, hope is more about the ability to generate alternative pathways toward one’s goals and believing in one’s capabilities to achieve those goals.


And the research says that people who are high in hope experience overall greater life satisfaction, said Ron Cox, Oklahoma State University Extension marriage and family specialist, and director of the OSU Center for Immigrant Health and Education.


“This particularly important for immigrant families or those living in mixed-status immigrant families, some of whom may not have appropriate documentation, or they have family members without appropriate documentation,” Cox said. “The chronic fear that arises from the threat of either themselves being deported or having a loved one being deported creates the kind of toxic stress that diminishes mental and physical health and promotes the initiation of substance use as a means of coping.”  


Although little research has studied the relationship between fear of deportation and substance use among Hispanics, there are numerous studies demonstrating the strong connection between stress and alcohol, tobacco and other drug use among all groups, not just immigrants. 


“Hispanic children of detained or deported parents report higher levels of psychological distress than those with parents who were permanent residents or had no contact with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Cox said.


This is concerning on several fronts. First, the consequences of underage alcohol, tobacco and other drug use are a major health concern in the United States.


“There are more deaths, illness and disabilities in this country from underage use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs than from any other preventable health condition,” Cox said. “Research indicates 15.2% of people who began drinking by age 14 eventually developed alcohol abuse or dependence compared to 2.1% of those who didn’t drink until age 21 or older.”


According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the annual economic impact of substance misuse is estimated to be $249 billion for alcohol misuse and $193 billion for illicit drug use. 


Second, the Hispanic population is one of the fastest growing of any ethnic group in the U.S., and predominantly so for individuals under the age of 19. Hispanic youth make up 26% of all U.S. children. It is estimated that 37% of the U.S. population will be comprised of immigrants and their children by 2050, most of which will be of Hispanic heritage. Because the vast majority (85-90%) of these children are U.S. citizens, policies that promote fear among immigrant populations have staggering implications for the nation’s future workforce and economic productivity. 


However, a new study by Cox and his colleagues shows that there is hope. He said that as expected, Hispanic immigrant youth reporting fear of deportation have increased levels of stress and those youth with increased levels of stress also report more alcohol, tobacco and other drug use. 


“What was surprising, however, was that for individuals reporting higher levels of hope, their hope completely offset the effects of fear of deportation on their perceived stress,” he said. “In other words, in a battle between hope and stress, hope wins. What is exciting about this finding is that hope is a teachable characteristic.”


This might help explain why in a different study published in the October 2021 issue of The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Cox and his team found that Hispanic youth in the Unidos Se Puede (United We Can) program had no significant increases in drug use from the 7th to the 10th grade. 


Several other research teams have also found hope to be a malleable factor that can help improve youth mental health. Programs geared toward increasing hope and other aspects of positive thinking can help prevent mood disorders among youth of all ethnicities. The limited studies that have been done suggest that youth who have higher levels of hope are more likely to attempt to manage life’s adverse events, and the good news is that they are often successful.


“Without research leading to innovate solutions to prevent or delay the initiation of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, health disparities will likely widen for the Hispanic population,” Cox said. “Funding programs that increase hope may be one of those solutions.”

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