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It has been well documented that exposure to adverse ecological conditions places youth at elevated risk for poor adjustment (e.g., Forehand et al., 1998; Rutter, 1979; Sameroff et al., 1987). Adverse ecological conditions, also referred to as risk factors, do not occur in isolation, but tend to cluster together. For example, an adolescent who is poor is likely to be exposed to a host of other adverse conditions in his/her neighborhood, school, and family contexts. Furthermore, evidence suggests that as the number of risk factors increase, the likelihood that youth will experience adjustment problems also increases (Rutter, 1979). One of the adjustment problems that youth are likely to experience as ecological risk increases is the onset of depressive symptoms (Forehand et al., 1998; Loukas and Prelow, 2004). This is a significant concern because depression starts to increase in prevalence during adolescence with 15% to 20% of adolescents having experienced a depressive episode by mid-adolescence (Birmaher et al., 1996). Given the large number of adolescents who may be at risk for adjustment difficulties, it is important to identify mechanisms through which ecological risk influences depressive symptomatology so that preventative interventions can be developed.
The present study is inspired by Sandler's (2001) theoretical model of risk and resilience, which includes self-system processes as mediators of the relations between ecological adversity and psychological adjustment. Self-system processes have been defined as organized perceptions of the self in relation to the social context (Skinner and Wellborn, 1997). Included among self-system processes are constructs such as competence (e.g., Connell, 1990), self-efficacy (e.g., Bandura, 1997), and self-worth (e.g., Harter, 1990). Theoretically, self-system beliefs are affected by past experiences with adverse conditions such as poverty, stressful life events, or neighborhood disadvantage (Sandler, 2001). Subsequently, self-system beliefs influence how individuals appraise future adverse conditions (see Sandler, 2001). Unsuccessful experiences in dealing with adversity should inhibit the development of self-worth, competence, and self-efficacy. Conversely, success in dealing with adversity should promote the development of self-worth, competence, and self-efficacy. Self-system processes are important to psychological adjustment of youth because they play an important motivational role in coping with adversity (Sandler, 2001; Skinner and Edge, 2002; Skinner and Wellborn, 1997). Presumably, positive beliefs about one's self-worth and one's abilities would be expected to increase persistent efforts to change the threat or the perception of threat, which in turn would lead to lower levels of depressive symptoms (Sandler, 2001). In contrast, more negative beliefs about one's abilities to manage stressful situations would be expected to be associated with lower levels of efforts in stressful situations, which could lead to the onset of depressive symptoms (Sandler, 2001).
Sandler (2001) provided preliminary support for the adequacy of the theoretical model using data from two atrisk samples (children of divorce and bereaved children) to test a limited set of self-system processes. In both samples, self-system processes (i.e., self-worth and coping efficacy) mediated the relation between adversity and depression. Adversity had a direct negative effect on self-worth and coping efficacy, both of which were positively associated with depression. In addition, academic competence had a direct effect on externalizing problems and an indirect effect on depression through coping efficacy and self-worth in both the children of divorce and the bereaved children samples.
Besides Sandler's (2001) preliminary work, other studies have provided support for self-system processes as mediators of the relations between adversity and adjustment (Haine et al., 2003; Sandler et al., 2000; Tram and Cole, 2000). Perceived competence, which refers to the experience of feeling that one is effective in dealing with the environment (Skinner and Wellborn, 1997), has been linked to adolescent adjustment. For example, Tram and Cole (2000) examined perceived competence as a mediator of the relation between negative life events and depressive symptoms in a predominately (73%) European American sample of 9th grade students. The results of their longitudinal study indicated that perceived competence partially accounted for the relations between negative life events and depressive symptoms. Specifically, negative life events predicted a decrease in self-perceived competence, and perceived competence predicted a decrease in depressive symptoms (Tram and Cole, 2000).
Self-esteem, another self-system process, refers to evaluations that an individual makes about his/her worth and value (Harter, 1999). Self-esteem has been shown to mediate the relations between stress and psychological adjustment (Haine et al., 2003). Haine and her colleagues examined two self system processes (locus of control and self-esteem) as moderators or mediators of the relations between negative life events and two indicators of mental health problems (depressive symptoms and externalizing behaviors) in a predominately (76.4%) European American sample of parentally bereaved children. Of the two self-processes and the two mental health outcomes examined, only self-esteem mediated the relations between negative life events and internalizing symptoms. There was no support that either self-esteem or locus of control moderated the relations between negative life events and depressive symptoms or externalizing behaviors.
Coping efficacy, a third self-system variable, has been defined as "a global belief that one can deal both with the demands made and the emotions aroused by a situation" (Sandler et al., 2000, p. 1099). Sandler and his colleagues investigated three different models of coping efficacy (i.e., a type of self-efficacy) in a predominately (86%) European American sample of children of divorce. Results from both their cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses were consistent with the interpretation that coping efficacy partially accounted for the relations between coping strategies and psychological problems. Although measures of stress context, coping efficacy, and psychological problems (internalizing and externalizing problems) were included in the study, Sandler did not report whether efficacy mediated the relations between stress context and psychological problems. However, in the cross-sectional model shown in the study (see Fig. 2 in Sandler et al., 2000), stress context was negatively related to efficacy and in turn efficacy was negatively related to both internalizing and externalizing problems. These findings suggest that efficacy may mediate the relations between stress context and both internalizing and externalizing problems.
Taken together, the studies reviewed provide support for the role of self-system processes as mediators of the relations between adversity and depressive symptoms. However, the findings from most of the studies cited are based on investigations conducted in predominately European American samples using a "one model fits all approach" (see Garcia Coll et al., 1996). A limitation of the "one model fits all approach" is that it does not take into account the importance of social position and social stratification variables such as discrimination, racial segregation, or oppression (Garcia Coll et al., 1996) to the development of minority children. That is, the developmental contexts of minority youth often include ecological factors unique to minority status that may require different adaptational processes than those required of European American youth …