A Troubling New Report Sheds Light On Mental Health Risks That Undocumented Immigrants Face

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The stigma surrounding mental illness is becoming less severe thanks to outspoken public figures, awareness campaigns, and policies geared towards addressing this medical issue. These responses to mental health issues can be extremely helpful to those who are seeking help, but some of the underlying environmental causes of mental illness have increased in this political climate. Racism and racial discrimination have adverse affects on mental health, producing depression, general anxiety, and heightened psychological stress for those who experience it regularly. A new study out of Rice University examined the mental health of undocumented Mexican immigrants, a group that faces discrimination interpersonally and from the highest levels of government, and found that this group is suffering from mental illness at higher levels than the general U.S. population.

The study, which was led by Luz Garcini, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology at Rice University, was conducted in a city in North San Diego County. According to the study, this city was one of the "most conservative U.S. cities with strong opposition and punitive actions against undocumented immigrants," and Garcini describes the area in which the study was conducted as “a high-risk area for undocumented immigrants.” As you might expect, Garcini and her research team found that the opposition these immigrants face has a negative effect on their mental health.

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Twenty-three percent of the study’s nearly 250 participants met the criteria for a mental health disorder. Major depressive disorder was the most prevalent (14 percent) among the study’s participants. Eight percent met the criteria for panic disorder, and 7 percent had generalized anxiety disorder. These numbers are higher than the general American population by 7 percentage points for depression, 5 for panic disorder, and 4 for anxiety.

“The estimates obtained in this study for depression and anxiety disorders were considerably higher in this population when compared with estimates for the general U.S. population,” Garcini said in a press release. According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, around 7 percent of the U.S. population lives with depression, and 3 percent are living with panic disorder and/or generalized anxiety disorder.

Despite heightened levels of mental illness that these immigrants experience, substance abuse among undocumented Mexican immigrants was similar to that of the general American population at 4 percent of study participants. “This finding defies existing stereotypes that contribute to stigmatization of and discrimination against Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation as a population with high prevalence of substance use,” Garcini said. “These individuals are unlikely to engage in substance use because it increases their risk for deportation and it interferes with their productivity at work.”

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Not only does racism and discrimination heighten undocumented immigrants' risk of developing a mental health disorder, immigrants face additional barriers to receiving help from a professional that documented immigrants and American citizens don’t. The study finds that language barriers and the fear of deportation or family separation are factors that prevent folks from seeking help. Among all Latinx people in the United States with a mental health disorder, less than 11 percent contact a mental health specialist. Undocumented Latinx face further stigma, making the likelihood of them contacting a mental health specialist even lower though this is yet to be studied.

It’s clear that the undocumented Mexican immigrant population needs culturally competent mental health services, but biases against this group from policymakers is yet another obstacle. “Debates on programs and policies pertaining to these individuals are complicated, and disagreement on immigration and welfare reform in the U.S. is enduring,” Garcini said.

“Additional research and funding are needed to document the devastating effects of the current socio-political context on the mental health of immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation, which is needed to inform advocacy, policy and intervention efforts,” Garcini said. Access to mental health services is a human right. Immigration status should not factor into whether a person can see a mental health specialist, nor any health care provider.