Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Is coming to America bad for your mental health?

Photo by Craig Dennis/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A new report from a mental health study of Mexican immigrants has found that immigrants to the United States face more than four times the risk of depression as those who don't immigrate, and that in general, coming to the U.S. increases their risk of depression, anxiety and other problems.

Yesterday the Archives of General Psychiatry published the results of a cross-national study conducted by UC Davis and Mexico's National Institute of Psychiatry. The study analyzed data from interviews with approximately 550 male and female Mexican-born immigrants and approximately 2,500 peers who remained in Mexico, comparing the U.S. group with same-aged, non-immigrant relatives. From the UC Davis website:

It found that during the period following arrival in the United States, Mexican migrants were nearly twice as likely (odds ratio of 1.8) to experience a first-onset depressive or anxiety disorder as their nonmigrant peers. However, the elevated risk among migrants occurred almost entirely in the two youngest migrant groups, those between 18 and 25 years old and those between 26 and 35 at the time of the study.

The greatest risk was experienced by the youngest migrants, who were 18-to-25 years old at the time of the study. Their odds of suffering from any depressive disorder relative to non-migrants was 4.4 — or nearly four-and-one-half times greater — compared with 1.2 in the entire sample.

Recent news reports have focused on the mental health of the children of immigrants, such as Latina teens, who have a high rate of attempted suicide. But being a stranger in a strange land brings with it its own tremendous stresses - learning a new language, economic anxiety, raising children in a foreign environment - that can affect mental, emotional and physical health.

From the American Psychiatric Association:

Many older Hispanic Americans find the strain of acculturation overwhelming. Their traditional values and beliefs are often at odds with the new culture, they may lack family support and may face language barriers.

It's not just Latinos that are vulnerable, as many Asian immigrants, as well as their children, find themselves facing similar stressors. And among refugees in general, the stress of acculturation can be compounded by baggage from traumatic events back home.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that after more than after two decades in the United States, Cambodian refugees who fled their country after enduring the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge experienced a staggering degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. Of a sample of almost 500 people in the Long Beach area, many described experiencing starvation, forced labor, the murder of a relative or friend and other trauma. From the 2005 report:

Sixty-two percent suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and 51 percent from depression in the past year — six-to-seventeen times the national average for adults. The more trauma they endured, the worse their symptoms.

While many immigrants are susceptible to mental health issues, they are at the same time less likely to take advantage of mental health services. According to one Western Journal of Medicine report, "social stigma, shame, and saving face often prevent Asians from seeking behavioral health care." The same holds true for Latinos, who use mental health services “far less than other ethnic and racial groups,” according to the American Psychiatric Association's website.

As with Asian immigrants, Latinos face language barriers, as well as a lack of access to appropriate care and cultural roadblocks that include fear of being stigmatized. A 2005 National Council of La Raza white paper on mental health disparities recommended public policy changes, among them better advocacy efforts and funding for care as well as "culturally- and linguistically-relevant" mental health services.