Project COPE was a four-year longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The goals of Project COPE were to understand how exposure to community and peer violence, poverty, and similar stressors are associated with physiological responses to stress and to adjustment (drug use, aggression, academic performance, anxiety and depression).

Families (a maternal caregiver and one adolescent) were interviewed annually, beginning when the adolescent was either in the 5th or 8th grade. In Wave 3 of the study, we also interviewed a subset of biological and social fathers. Project COPE focused on a number of aspects in the lives of these families, including adolescents' coping resources, parent/guardian and family resources, and parent/guardian adjustment. Project COPE was built on a model of risk and resilience, with attention to risk factors for adjustment difficulties, and individual, family-level and community-level protective factors.

Core assumptions underlying the study include:

  • Chronic and acute stressors place children at risk for negative mental and physical health outcomes. These stressors may be part of the adolescent's neighborhood, family or school environment, or may be self generated. Not all adolescents are at equal risk for experiencing negative health outcomes in response to stressors. Individual, family-level and neighborhood-level risk and protective factors heighten or attenuate risk, respectively.
  • Protective factors are particularly important to study and are present at the individual (adolescent or parent), family and neighborhood levels. Physiological responses to stress have been ignored for the most part in studies of violence exposure, but can help us understand why some youth are more vulnerable to adjustment difficulties than others.
  • Generative studies such as this one can help us to identify the most promising avenues for intervention with families. We studied two cohorts of youth - 5th and 8th graders - and followed them over time. By studying two age groups of youth, we were able to track youth as they began to develop adjustment problems, as well as monitor the progression of adjustment difficulties as youth transitioned into middle school and high school.

We used both quantitative and qualitative methods in this work. As part of the adolescent interview, we collected saliva samples, which we assayed for stress hormones and enzymes, including cortisol and alpha amylase. Data collection is complete and we are currently in the process of coding and analyzing data.