Despite decades of policies and programs aimed at reducing residential segregation, many low-income African American (AA) families continue to live in spatially isolated, urban neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Living in segregated, poor neighborhoods where drugs and crime are widespread makes fostering and maintaining meaningful social relationships within the community more difficult. This is significant given that chronic social isolation and anonymity have been linked to a host of health problems. Low-income AA women, in particular, often face considerable lifelong trauma and psychosocial stressors. For example, they are more likely to experience long-term poverty, be victimized, know someone who has been injured or killed and experience the loss of a child to gun violence compared to women of other ethnicities in the U.S. The stress of chronic poverty combined with living in neighborhoods riddled with violence disproportionately places AA women at increased risk of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and diminished immune functioning and disease. However, many questions remain regarding the biological mechanisms by which a continuous cycle of social stressors affect health, particularly within racial minority populations, as well as the kinds of proximate interventions that can alleviate some of these stressors.
The first goal of our research is to understand how adverse social and environmental experiences, including living in high crime neighborhoods and lack of social support, influence epigenetic profiles in AA women that might be associated with mental health disparities. The second goal of our research is to rigorously evaluate our program intervention, DREAM, and determine whether it improves mental health and well-being and the extent to which these stress-related changes are linked with changes in epigenetic profiles.