The illness experiences of African Americans residing in an inner city community, Houston, Texas

Melody J Slashinski, The University of Texas School of Public Health


This dissertation documents health and illness in the context of daily life circumstances and structural conditions faced by African American families living in Clover Heights (pseudonym), an inner city public housing project in the Third Ward, Houston, Texas. Drawing from Kleinman's (1980) model of culturally defined health care systems and using the holistic-content approach to narrative analysis (Lieblich, Tuval- Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998) the purpose of this research was to explore the ways in which social and health policy, economic mobility, the inner city environment, and cultural beliefs intertwined with African American families' health related ideas, behaviors, and practices. I recruited six families using a convenience sampling method (Schensul, Schensul, & LeCompte, 1999) and followed them for fourteen months (2010–2011). Family was defined as a household unit, or those living in the same residence, short or long-term. Single, African American women ranging in age from 29–80 years headed all families. All but one family included children or grandchildren 18 years of age and younger, or children or other relative 18 years of age and older. I also recruited six residents with who I became acquainted over the course of the project. I collected data using traditional ethnographic methods including participant-observation, archive review, field notes, mapping, free-listing, in-depth interviews, and life history interviews. Doing ethnography afforded the families who participated in this project the freedom to construct their own experiences of health and illness. My role centered on listening to, learning from, and interpreting participants' narratives, exploring similarities and differences within and across families' experiences. As the research progressed, a pattern concerning diagnosis and pharmacotherapy for children's behavioral and emotional problems, particularly attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and pediatric bipolar disorder (PBD), emerged from my formal interactions with participants and my informal interactions with residents. The findings presented in this dissertation document this pattern, focusing on how mothers and families interpreted, organized, and ascribed meaning to their experiences of ADHD and PBD. In the first manuscript presented here, I documented three mothers' narrative constructions of a child's diagnosis with and pharmacotherapy for ADHD or PBD. Using Gergen's (1997) relational perspective I argued that mothers' knowledge and experiences of ADHD and PBD were not individually constructed, but were linguistically and discursively constituted through various social interactions and relationships, including family, spirituality and faith, community norms, and expert systems of knowledge. Mothers' narratives revealed the complexity of children's behavioral and emotional problems, the daily trials of living through these problems, how they coped with adversity and developed survival strategies, and how they interacted with various institutional authorities involved in evaluating, diagnosing, and encouraging pharmaceutical intervention for children's behavior. The findings highlight the ways in which mothers' social interactions and relationships introduced a scientific language and discourse for explaining children's behavior as mental illness, the discordances between expert systems of knowledge and mothers' understandings, and how discordances reflected mothers' ‘microsources of power’ for producing their own stories and experiences. In the second manuscript presented here, I documented the ways in which structural factors, including gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, coupled with a unique cultural and social standpoint (Collins, 1990/2009) influenced the strategies this group of African American mothers employed to understand and respond to ADHD or PBD. The most salient themes related to mother-child relationships coalesced around mothers' beliefs about the etiology of ADHD and PBD, ‘conceptualizing responsibility,’ and ‘protection-survival.’ The findings suggest that even though mothers' strategies varied, they were in pursuit of a common goal. Mothers' challenged the status quo, addressing children's behavioral and emotional problems in the ways that made the most sense to them, specifically protecting their children from further marginalization in society more so than believing these were the best options for their children.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Black studies|Public health|Clinical psychology

Recommended Citation

Slashinski, Melody J, "The illness experiences of African Americans residing in an inner city community, Houston, Texas" (2011). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3481827.