Reconceptualizing Risk and Protective Factors in Cultural Context: A Case Study of Mental Health Problems among Samoan Adolescents

Document Type


Presentation Date


Conference Name

Society for Psychological Anthropology’s Biennial Meeting

Conference Location

Asilomar, CA

Peer Review



Early research on mental health problems in children and adolescents focused on identifying factors that increases the individual’s risk for developing different psychiatric conditions (or provides resilience against their development). Considerable research over the past three decades has shown that these linear models of causality simply do not provide sufficient explanation for the complexities of mental illness over developmental time. Developmental psychopathology has increasingly turned to more complex, multi-leveled models that acknowledge the co-constitutive nature of constitutional, psychological, environmental, socio-cultural, and historical processes over time. While many of these more recent models include mention of “culture” as an important variable, the concept remains largely unexamined and under-theorized in these works. I contend that a more nuanced and detailed examination of cultural practices and beliefs and the socio-cultural contexts in which children develop is vital for understanding the complex impacts of specific “risk” and “protective factors” on children’s lives and developmental trajectories. A careful ethnographic examination of individual lives and meanings can contextualize the various dynamics and life events that are thought to put children and young adults at risk within a specific social, economic, cultural, political, and historical frame. Moreover, it can also promote a more robust understanding of what Ann Masten (2001) calls the “ordinary magic” of resilience that enables many children to successfully adapt to difficult circumstances and life events. I will illustrate these points with reference to a recent study of mental and behavioral health among Samoan adolescents that employs both ethnographic research as well as an epidemiological study of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance use problems.


mental health, Samoa, Polynesia, behavioral health


Anthropology | Psychiatric and Mental Health | Substance Abuse and Addiction

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