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Scholar Feature: Complex relationships at the center of Louis Graham's (FRS '16-17) latest research on stress

Louis Graham

Family, friends, and romantic and sexual partners can be a source of both support and stress, often simultaneously. Louis Graham, Assistant Professor of Health Promotion and Policy, seeks to detail the complexities of these relationships for people at the intersections of marginalized identities.

The first grant proposal of Graham’s Center for Research on Families (CRF) fellowship centered on young, Black, gay and similarly identified men and their relationships with immediate family, friends, or partners. Through in-depth group interviews, Graham plans to develop a nuanced understanding of how relationships buffer and contribute to mental distress. Graham’s study will highlight the ways family, friends, and partners can provide critical support and connection in some facets of these young men’s lives, while also disparaging or isolating them due to other parts of their identity.

For young, Black, gay men in particular, Graham notes, “often it is the most supportive relationships that end up being the most stressful. The way that stress and rejection manifests in the relationship is often seen, by at least one member of the relationship, as rooted in love, caring, and concern.” For example, disapproval or silence about their child’s sexual or gender identity may be inextricably linked to parents’ fears their child may contract HIV/AIDS or experience violence. Simplistic categorizations of relationships, as either supportive or unsupportive, fails to account for the intricacies of emotional, instrumental and economic support, especially in marginalized communities, and their impact on stress and mental health.  

Adding a more nuanced understanding of close relationships to the minority stress model is just one piece of Graham’s systematic exploration. Alternating between focused, qualitative inquiries into core concepts and quantitative statistical testing of the pathways between concepts, Graham seeks to construct a comprehensive model of minority stress that can be used by researchers and practitioners working in a variety of communities. Graham explains, “one of the things that guides my work is the idea that we stand to learn most from those who are most marginalized. Certainly if we can address health disparities and challenges for those who are most marginalized, we can do it for the collective.”

Graham began his research with a focus group study that investigated the ways intersecting marginalized identities, based in race, gender, sexuality, and social class, influence health outcomes among African-American, Latino, and LGBT communities. He continues to build on this work with a five-year NIH grant aimed at implementing a stress intervention for older Black men through Men of Color Health Awareness (MOCHA) in Springfield, MA. Using data from this project, Graham will extend his model to include stressors based on age discrimination and the spatial stigma associated with identifying as a resident of a socially and economically marginalized neighborhood.

In the second half of his CRF residency, Graham returned to quantitative research with a proposal for a longitudinal study exploring gender conformity pressure and racial justice. Working with CRF affiliates and his Family Research Scholars (FRS) peers has helped Graham integrate cortisol assessments and other biomarkers of mental distress and suicidality into his study designs for the first time. As part of the Tay Gavin Erickson lecture series, Graham was also able to collaborate with Lisa Bowleg, a scholar credited with bringing intersectional approaches to the field of public health. Graham is deeply appreciative of his “CRF family” for their constructive and supportive feedback. He said, “if [this project] is funded, I will be indebted to the group. Their fingerprints are all over it!”

Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal to support their research.