Brandy Piña-Watson's lab focuses on the mental health of the Latinx community of Texas Tech University and surrounding areas.
Brandy Piña-Watson came to Texas Tech University in 2014 intent on building a community bound by research and a common ethnic background. As an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, she started the Latinx Mental Health and Resiliency Lab with one student. Now, five years later, her lab has grown from a bare room upstairs in the psychology building to a full, running lab with more than 20 team members.
When she completed her doctorate at Texas A&M University, Piña-Watson was attracted to Texas Tech but wasn't certain if she'd be able to conduct her research here. She feared that, to accomplish her goals, she'd have to travel all over the state. But when she arrived in Lubbock, she immediately began to feel confident that Texas Tech was the right place for her.
“When I started looking into Lubbock, I saw the population was composed of about 30 percent of individuals who identified as Hispanic,” Piña-Watson said. “When I got off the plane in Lubbock, walking to baggage claim, I noticed a magazine called ‘Latino Lubbock' on the magazine stands. There was actually a magazine tailored specifically to the Latino population here! Flipping through it, I wasn't just thinking about my research, but about my family, too – whether or not we could have a community here. That was one of the things that made me feel like this could be the place.”
Piña-Watson's passion for the Latinx community, and particularly the youth in that community, began long before her journey brought her to Texas Tech. From 2007 to 2014, Piña-Watson worked in clinics, schools and counseling centers. One of her earliest positions was at a mental health center in Corpus Christi, where her experiences defined her passion for Latinx youth and drove her to build a research lab focused on them and emerging Latinx adults.
“I worked in family-based services,” Piña-Watson said. “I had a caseload of children ranging in age from 3-18. I worked with kids and families with mental health issues. Working in this South Texas community, most of my clients were of Latinx background. A lot of my girls kept going in and out of hospitals because of suicide attempts.
“I kept hearing the girls talk about not wanting to live, and ‘not wanting to be here anymore,' and I thought it couldn't just be happening on my caseload. It was very disturbing to me. I started looking into it and came across this line of research showing that Latina adolescents are at a high risk for suicide attempts. That's how I became interested in applying for graduate school because there weren't prevention programs out there to address this phenomenon in a culturally responsive manner.”
The field of study and need for research
With her small but continuously growing community, Piña-Watson studies the mental health and well-being of adolescents and emerging adults of Latinx background, or people who have a family heritage from Latin-American countries. Her primary focus is on individuals of Mexican descent, due to unique experiences of this group and the fact that they are the largest and fastest growing Latinx ethnic group in the United States.
The lab takes a holistic approach by not only studying youth who are struggling, but also studying youth who are thriving. By studying youth who have higher life satisfaction, academic success and self-esteem, Piña-Watson and her team can better inform prevention programs for struggling youth and emerging adults in the future. Piña-Watson describes the behavior of thriving youth and emerging adults as “resiliency.”
“Resiliency means that, despite experiencing adversity, you are able to thrive,” she said. “Some people follow the route of adversity experiences, leading to poor outcomes. We want to understand what factors contribute to the resilient group, who have healthy outcomes despite adversity, so we can then translate these factors into prevention programming. If we can teach all Latinx youth certain coping skills that promote resilience, then we can hopefully set more folks on the path of success.”
Insight from Human Sciences
Early in Piña-Watson's career at Texas Tech, she connected with Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo, an associate professor and graduate program director for Human Development and Family Studies. Trejos-Castillo was impressed with Piña-Watson from the beginning, and they began working on community-based programming together.
One of the main focuses of Trejos-Castillo's career is studying risk-taking behaviors in troubled youth, which includes a wide overlap with Piña-Watson's research. Trejos-Castillo says the need for Piña-Watson's research is particularly apparent in adolescents.
“Adolescence is a particularly difficult time of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, with overwhelming physical and emotional changes,” Trejos-Castillo said. “It can be easy for caregivers to assume that any emotional turmoil is just puberty.”
Trejos-Castillo said suicidal ideation in adolescents often can be a cry for help or a negative coping mechanism that adolescents themselves don't understand.
“As adults, we need to be more aware of this,” Trejos-Castillo said. “Not to the point of being overprotective, because they need to figure things out on their own, but we need to be better equipped to recognize when these negative coping mechanisms aren't just puberty. When an adolescent says all the time, ‘I hate myself, I want to kill myself,' that's the time to listen. Adults need to be very involved – that's another thing Brandy is working on.”
The stigma around mental health within Hispanic culture is a pervasive issue, Trejos-Castillo explained. Mental health is seen as a weakness, and Hispanic individuals often can feel like admitting to a mental health problem will stigmatize them forever.
There's a familial aspect to speaking openly about mental health; community is such a pillar of Hispanic culture that it's difficult for individuals to speak out about their mental health to strangers. Mental health is seen as a private matter, and private matters aren't to be shared outside of the family.
“Brandy addresses this by working with the Hispanic community from the inside,” Trejos-Castillo said. “It's extremely important to approach them at their own level. That's a big change in how we're approaching mental health now. To talk this community about something that is extremely sensitive, you have to gain their trust first. It's very important to find the right balance of empowering and helping the individuals within the culture without violating their culture or imposing ourselves on them.”
Current projects and the future of the lab
Piña-Watson's lab is in its sixth year at Texas Tech, and she has big plans going forward.
“I'm moving into more community-based work,” Piña-Watson said. “I want to hear the voice of the people and empower them to tell us what they need. We want to get into actionable research and program development.”
For Piña-Watson and her team, program development will focus mainly on prevention to best use all the resiliency studies they've done over the past five years.
They're beginning a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) program with a higher-impact grant they've just received from Texas Tech through the Center for Transformative Undergraduate Experiences. This program is called the Latinx Mental Health and Resiliency Youth Ambassador Program and is currently recruiting 10 youth from across Lubbock to participate. YPAR takes a social justice approach which has more involvement from the people participating – rather than researching the youth, Piña-Watson and her team will be researching with the youth. The youth in this research project will be ages 14-18, and the team will teach them the skills to begin critically examining their environment.
“We're going to help them learn the research skills, and they're going to carry out this research project with Instructional Review Board approval at Texas Tech,” Piña-Watson said. “Then, we're going to help them analyze what they find and turn it into a presentation they can give to their families and community leaders.”
Through projects like this, Latinx youth can help the Latinx Mental Health and Resiliency Lab pinpoint what is and is not going well in the community, then the participating youth can present solutions to their schools, community leaders and families.
“They're learning life skills,” Piña-Watson said. “They're learning how to critically examine their environment, how to ask for what they need and how to set up meetings with community leaders.”
In a separate project, the lab is preparing to complete interviews with male caregivers and their children. Piña-Watson says they want to see how these relationships could potentially protect against suicidal ideations and suicide attempts. Piña-Watson chose to focus on male caregivers because the last three decades of suicide research have focused on female caregivers and their children, and recent data from their lab has shown the unique and positive impact that connections with male caregivers can have on improving mental health outcomes for Latinx youth.
With suicidal ideation in youth, there's a direct correlation between the individual's relationship with their caregivers and their mental health. When Latinx youth experience intergenerational acculturative conflict as a result of having different levels of acculturation than their caregivers, a strong connection with either caregiver can set the youth up for higher resiliency, or a protective effect.
However, if the youth in question does not have a strong connection with the caregiver and experiences intergenerational acculturative conflict, then he or she is more likely to have poorer psychological outcomes, such as higher levels of suicidal ideation and risk of attempting suicide. Piña-Watson said there could be a stronger protective effect with male caregivers than with females based on previous studies in the lab.
Conflict within historically immigrant families
Intergenerational acculturative conflict occurs when Latinx youth clash with caregivers over a different level of acculturation. It often occurs within historically immigrant families. Older generations naturally have stronger ties to the cultural customs and values of their country, but younger generations begin to adopt Americanized values. This can lead to a familial conflict.
“Intergenerational acculturative conflict happens when youths and parents have different values and beliefs, because they might have different acculturation levels,” Piña-Watson said. “We see this as a normative process. There's nothing pathological about it, but in the past, literature describing it has talked about it in a pretty pathological way. In the lab, we're trying to encourage families to view it as a normative process. Parents and youth are going to have different values, particularly around acculturation. This does not mean all of these youth are going to go on to become depressed or have thoughts of suicide.”
A home away from home
Piña-Watson's lab is a unique fixture of Texas Tech, not only because of the significant and life-changing research she and her team are working on, but also because of the familial environment she's created. One of Piña-Watson's goals has always been to help Texas Tech become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), not just a Hispanic enrollment institution. She and her team promote inclusivity and mentorship.
“I get more applications for mentorship than I can possibly do,” Piña-Watson said. “Mentorship is a huge part of my job. Not just bringing students in to do the work, but also being there for them – asking what's going on in their world, asking how school is going. I'm trying to build and cultivate a familial lab. We enjoy hanging out with each other and enjoy this sense of community here at Texas Tech.”
Many of Piña-Watson's team members cultivate a research focus during their time in the lab. Each team member has the opportunity to discover their passions within the field and begin pursuing them under Piña-Watson's care. They're part of every step in Piña-Watson's projects. Team members contribute to project development, collecting and analyzing data and co-authoring papers and presentations. When they're not working, they're building the community by attending events together, hosting book clubs and checking in with one another and Piña-Watson.
Vanessa Loredo, one of the team members and a Texas Tech graduate, spoke on Piña-Watson's role.
“Brandy is more than the primary investigator in the lab,” Loredo said. “She was a mentor to me and, in some cases, my confidante. I remember there were times when I needed not only academic guidance, but life guidance as well. I always felt comfortable enough to open up to her and knew she genuinely cared about my well-being.”
“It's not just research-based; it's a real community,” Piña-Watson said. “It's a professional development support community that's really grown over the last five years. I'm super excited to see where we go next.”
On Piña-Watson's impact, Trejos-Castillo said, “She's doing a tremendous job of developing professionals who are caring and culturally competent. This lab is allowing these young professionals a safe place to address all of these important needs of the community.”
Academic recognition for mentorship
Recently, some of the mentorship achievements of Piña-Watson's career have been acknowledged at the university level. In the past year, Piña-Watson has received a mentorship award for the work she's been doing with her students, and the President's Excellence in Diversity and Equity Award, created by the Office of the President and administered by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Through the National Latinx Psychological Association, she received a Distinguished Early Career Award after her students wrote letters in support of her.
“I thought, even if I didn't get any of these awards, those letters were the most amazing things,” Piña-Watson said. “Those were the real gift. They just talked about their experience and what the lab meant to them. That is the important thing I'm doing. That's my passion. I want to keep students here, build them up and help them move toward whatever their goals may be. I don't want them to feel like a number.
“In terms of my professional identity, I want to continue moving along the next generation of researchers and mental health practitioners in this area. We're an underrepresented group. There's a shortage of Latinx mental health practitioners and professors. I am most fulfilled when I hear stories from my students about their successes and ambitions – moreso than when I get another publication or award. It's really about my students.”