In Brief

Despite psychologists' increasing interest in ethnic identity, acculturation and mental health over the past several decades, native Hawaiians remain an understudied population, said psychologist Kamana'Opono Crabbe, PhD, at a symposium at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu.

But some Hawaiian--and non-Hawaiian--psychologists are beginning to work to change that. At the symposium, several of them discussed their research on measuring ethnic identity and its relationship to mental health among native Hawaiians.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, 22 percent of Hawaii residents described themselves as native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander--that's about 270,000 people, most of whom are actually multiethnic.

To close the knowledge gap about these individuals, Crabbe, a psychologist at the Hana Medical Center in Maui, is developing the Hawaiian Ethnocultural Inventory, an ethnic identity scale that measures beliefs in Hawaiian cultural practices, knowledge of Hawaiian cultural practices, frequency of performing arts (such as hula), frequency of ocean traditions (such as canoeing or fishing) and frequency of spiritual and family customs.

Scales like this are necessary, he said, in order to be able to accurately measure Native Hawaiians' ethnic identity and its relationship to healthy psychological functioning.

Two other psychologists also spoke at the symposium:

  • Stephen Quintana, PhD, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described his study of how native Hawaiian children understand their ethnic identity at different ages. As they get older, children begin to understand first the cultural markers of being Hawaiian--such as language and religious customs--and then the social consequences.

  • Laurie McCubbin, PhD, a native Hawaiian and an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Washington State University, spoke about ethnic identity as a protective factor against mental health problems in native Hawaiian teenagers. Native Hawaiians have the highest rates of suicide, school absenteeism and juvenile delinquency of any ethnic group in the state of Hawaii, along with elevated levels of demoralization and low self-esteem, McCubbin said.

But, in a study of 243 native Hawaiian teens, she found that a strong sense of ethnic identity can help protect them from depression and anxiety and can boost levels of self-acceptance.