Mental Health Research: The Migration Experience


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This is part of our Mental Health & Latino Kids: A Research Review »

Impact of immigration on the Latino kids’ mental health

Ko and Perreira conducted a cross-sectional study of interview data from the Latino Adolescent, Migration, Health, and Adaptation (LAMHA) project to understand the impact of immigration on the mental health of Latino children.

The study included 283 pairs of first-generation Latino immigrant youth ages 12-19 and their caregivers. Participants were subjected to a survey with questions about mental health and experiences related to migration and acculturation (the process by which recent immigrants adopt cultural norms of their new country).

Of these participants, 20 Latino adolescents ages 14-18, most of whom had emigrated from Mexico with their parents within the last 5 years, were selected to engage in a more in-depth interview to discuss the three stages of the migration process—pre-migration, migration, and post-migration—and their experiences with each.13

Pre-migration: For many, the pre-migration period was defined by economic hardship and family separation; 38 percent of caregivers were separated from their child for up to one year, and 32 percent had been separated from their child for over one year. Child respondents reported having to stay with extended family during this time, noting that it was important to have strong bonds with extended family.

Migration stressors: During the migration period, Latinos endured difficult travel conditions, which was reported by most adolescent and caregiver respondents, and, for adolescents, the stress of leaving the extended family they had become close to during the pre-migration period; some adolescents also reported having to travel with strangers. Although 90 percent of respondents felt that the decision was the best one for their families, only 45 percent reported being happier after migration.

Post-migration stressors: Latinos faced changes in social status, language barrier frustration, conflicting values and attempts at acculturation, isolation, discrimination, and feelings of uncertainty about the future regarding immigration status.13

Migration affects depression, anxiety, discrimination

In another cross-sectional study of data from LAMHA, Potochnick and Perreira identified 254 first-generation Latinos ages of 12-19 in North Carolina.

The authors used participants’ interview responses to identify associations between mental health, migration stressors, and migration supports. Mental health was assessed using the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) and the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children (MASC-10).

In this population of first-generation Latino youth, almost 7 percent exhibited depressive symptoms, and 29 percent reported symptoms of anxiety. Latinas were slightly more likely than their male peers to suffer from depressive symptoms. The majority (75%) of respondents reported having been separated from their parent or primary caregiver during the migration process, and the average separation period was three years

Almost one quarter of participants considered their migration experience to be stressful, and, with 60.5 percent of adolescent participants and their primary caregivers being undocumented, many noted undocumented status as a significant stressor.

In addition, almost half of the participants identified discrimination as a stressor.14

Before controlling for demographics and stressors, the authors identified several unadjusted associations between mental health and stressors, including increased anxiety (OR=1.51) and depression (OR=1.44) in adolescents who were dissatisfied with migration, increased anxiety (OR=2.43) in those who had a stressful migration experience, significantly increased depression (OR=7.88) and anxiety (OR=6.27) among undocumented children with documented parents, and significant anxiety (OR=4.19) among undocumented children with undocumented parents.

Unadjusted associations between mental health and supports showed a reduction in depressive symptoms related to social supports such as familism (OR=.91) and teacher support (OR=.96), though these supports had no effect on anxiety, which was reduced only by years spent in the U.S. (OR=.91). Personal motivation was found to reduce the odds of both depression (OR=.20) and anxiety (OR=.60).14

After controlling for demographics and stressors, a significant increase in the odds of reporting symptoms of depression (55.09) and anxiety (11.18) was noted among undocumented children with documented parents.

A significant increase in the reporting of depressive symptoms (7.89) associated with discrimination was also seen after controlling for other stressors.

A significant decrease in the reporting of depressive symptoms (OR=.66) was associated with years spent in the U.S. after controlling for other stressors.

When the authors combined stressor and support measures into a single model, they found that there was no longer an association between depressive symptoms and having experienced discrimination; they also found that there was a decreased likelihood of anxiety (OR=.28) among adolescents who felt they were involved in their family’s decision to migrate.14

Puerto Rican youth in New York vs. Puerto Rico

Ramos et al. examined data from the Boricua Youth Study, a longitudinal study of Puerto Rican youth living in Puerto Rico (n=673) and in South Bronx, NY (n=598), to determine the effects of community and family stressors on youths’ internalizing symptoms (loneliness, depression, withdrawal, and anxiety).

The study was conducted in three waves between 2000 and 2004, with three annual interviews in either English or Spanish. Youth participants answered questions from several different mental health schedules from the National Institute of Mental Health Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children Version IV, including generalized anxiety, PTSD, and major depression schedules. The interview also included questions regarding discrimination and exposure to violence. Higher levels of internalizing symptoms were noted among NY youth compared to PR youth.

Youth in NY were also subject to higher levels of discrimination, which was indirectly related to the higher levels of internalization (p<.001).

Interestingly, a recovery in internalizing symptoms over time was seen in those who reported higher levels of discrimination exposure at wave 1, while those who reported lower levels of exposure to discrimination had stable internalizing symptoms over time or, in some cases, an increase in these symptoms.

Exposure to violence was also higher among NY youth, which was related to higher levels of internalizing symptoms at wave 1 (p<.01).15

More from our Mental Health & Latino Kids: A Research Review »

References for this section »

13. Ko, L. K. & Perreira, K. M. “It Turned My World Upside Down”: Latino Youths’ Perspectives on Immigration. J. Adolesc. Res. 25, 465–493 (2010).

14. Potochnick, S. R. & Perreira, K. M. Depression and Anxiety among First-Generation Immigrant Latino Youth: Key Correlates and Implications for Future Research. J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 198, 470–477 (2010).

15. Ramos-Olazagasti, M. A., Shrout, P. E., Yoshikawa, H., Canino, G. J. & Bird, H. R. Contextual risk and promotive processes in Puerto Rican youths’ internalizing trajectories in Puerto Rico and New York. Dev. Psychopathol. 25, 755–771 (2013).

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