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Pilot project helps Latino and Latina families overcome the effects of parental depression

December 29, 2011 By Rebecca Quigley

The effects of parental depression on a child can be many, varied and deeply rooted.

One such effect is taking on parental responsibilities out of a conscious, or subconscious, desire to maintain normalcy in the home. Children may take on adult responsibilities such as cooking, caring for younger siblings and shopping, at the expense of schoolwork or simply being a kid.

“Children who have a mother with depression have negative outcomes through their lifetime,” says counseling psychology professor Carmen Valdez, who has dedicated much of her career to ending this trend.

Valdez and her 15-member, interdisciplinary research team of graduate and undergraduate students have spent the past two years setting up and running an outreach program. Their mission is to help children and families overcome the struggles they face surrounding parental depression.

Valdez’ team is drawing close to the end of a study funded by UW–Madison’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

Valdez used the grant to pilot Fortalezas Familiares (FF; meaning “Family Strengths”), a research-service study designed to improve the lives of Latino and Latina immigrant families in the Madison area who have a mother with depression.

Valdez developed FF as a cultural adaptation of the successful Keeping Families Strong (KFS) program that she helped establish at Johns Hopkins University before she came to Madison. KFS reduced mothers’ depression, supported family resources, and reduced emotional and behavioral problems in children among low-income English-speaking families, Valdez says.

FF addresses those issues, and issues that are specific to the culture in the United States, through building parenting competence, effective communication, family cohesion, and coping strategies, according to a program report.

Mental health practitioners have made some headway in extending mental health treatment to Latino and Latina families in need, but doctoral student Brian Padilla says that seeking out an getting treatment remains taboo in Latino and Latina culture.

Parents often don’t explain or discuss mental health issues with children. So, if their mother is depressed, they don’t recognize or understand it. Furthermore, conflicts that stem from generational and cultural differences within families can create additional stressors inside and outside of the family, Padilla says.

“Kids get angry or worried because they don’t understand (what’s going on),” he says.

The FF team has been able to help the families by finding a middle ground through communication that leads to mutual understanding.

Padilla, whose own work focuses on both Latino and Latina and adolescent psychology, had always questioned the applicability of accepted treatments and psychological tools for underrepresented minority groups.

“This really drove that home — that interventions really need to be modified to cultural context,” he says.

Though he has observed many benefits of the FF program, Padilla was particularly pleased that treatments can be adapted with success.

“I am inspired by the population we are working with — they demonstrate incredible ability to persevere and take risks to improve themselves,” he says. “They are thinking critically about traditional norms that they adhere to in their lives and are being able and willing to make little changes in areas that have been problematic.”

And they are making headway without sacrificing their cultural identity, Padilla says.

The participating families in the FF program have demonstrated investment in and commitment to the program.

“They come to every session and they complete it, despite the difficulty in getting there,” Valdez says. “We basically have the whole family — that’s been one of the most amazing things.”

The program hits close to home for master’s student Edith Flores, whose parents emigrated to California from Mexico. Her mother suffered from depression but lacked access to bilingual, culturally-based services.

“(FF) has kind of normalized my experience,” says Flores. “I realized there was a lack of resources in other places.”

When Flores started school at UW–Madison, she immediately noticed that the Latino and Latina population on campus was small. So, she moved to Madison’s south side where she was exposed to the stresses in her neighbors’ lives and wanted to be involved in helping them, she says.

Flores’ role in the FF program has been observing the small children’s activities while the adults are in sessions. Based on that experience, she has helped to develop a manual for group leaders to tailor the children’s session into more of an intervention than child care.

“We’re making (the children’s intervention) more community and family focused than what exists — which is more for school-based intervention,” she says.

The FF team found that the participating families have been building strong connections with each other outside of the program such as organizing play dates and hosting parties, she says.

Parents even started to bring their own food to meetings, something that the FF team members had provided at the beginning as an incentive to attend, Valdez says.

Valdez’ team doesn’t recruit participants directly but relies on referrals from partners at health care clinics and community service agencies. The program now has a waiting list of families.

Although the study sample is relatively small, Valdez says that the team has been able to see significant improvements in family functioning, level of depression, and children’s coping and functioning.

Valdez, who grew up in El Salvador — a country rife with poverty and social injustice, can hang her hat on the success of the FF pilot program.

“I grew up in a privileged family environment but we were surrounded by and came into contact with very disenfranchised people,” she says. “I’ve always felt drawn to people in adversity, and always felt a commitment to working with people (in these) situations.”

Her commitment will only increase with the end of the FF pilot because she plans to keep the program running and expand it across the state.

Valdez plans to apply for continued financial support to confirm the efficacy of the intervention and to sustain the program through community agencies and clinics.

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