Whereas emerging adulthood is considered a time of improving mental health and possibility for young people in general, this is far less true for low SES African American men. We tested a model of the factors that contribute to escalating rates of substance use and depression in emerging adulthood among rural Black men. We hypothesized that exposure to childhood adversity would affect exposure to emerging adult stressors in emerging adulthood. The combination of historical and contemporary adversity was expected to promote defensive
relational schemas, relationship-based cognitions that shape how men engage in close relationships. For men exposed to contextual adversity such schemas become increasingly centered on distrust in close relationships which predicts difficulties maintain prosocial ties with parents, romantic partners, peers, and prosocial adults in the community. For emerging adults, such prosocial ties are critical for modulating young tendencies toward overconsumption of substances and for maintaining positive mental health. A second aim of this study was to explore the influence of OXTR methylation as a vulnerability factor in the etiology of depression and substance use during this time period. We thus examined OXTR methylation of as a moderator of the study paths linking adversity and contextual stress to relational schema.
Methods: Hypotheses were tested with three waves of data (ages 19, 20, and 22) from the African American men’s project (AMP). Autoregressive and multigroup structural equation modeling analyses were implemented.
Results: Childhood adversity predicted emerging adult contextual stressors, which in turn predicted increases in defensive schema from W1 to W2. These changes were associated with weakening of social ties, which proximally predicted increases from W1 to W3 in depression and substance use. Multigroup SEM indicated that methylation status at Wave 2 moderated the influence of emerging adult stressors on relational schema.
Conclusion: Findings confirm a model that highlights how stressful contexts make prosocial bonds less available for young men, increasing their vulnerability to substance use and depressive symptomology. Exploratory analyses suggest that methylation in OXTR functions as a vulnerability factor, increasing the impact of stress and defensive relationship cognitions on social relationship functioning and wellbeing. Limitations include potential method bias introduced by associations among self-report measure and the need for prospective rather than retrospective assessments of childhood adversity