More anxiety, depression among undocumented Mexican immigrants

An undocumented immigrant man comforts a woman after US Border Patrol agents surprised and detained them north of the US-Mexico border on August 6, 2015 near Falfurrias, Texas. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

Nearly one quarter of undocumented Mexican immigrants living near the California-Mexico border have a mental disorder, particularly depression or anxiety, a new study finds.

The study examines the prevalence of mental disorders and substance use among Mexican immigrants residing near the California-Mexico border without legal authorization.

Given that the city where researchers conducted the study features strong opposition and disciplinary actions against undocumented immigrants, lead author Luz Garcini, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of psychology at Rice University, says this area is considered a high-risk area for undocumented immigrants.

Looking at the numbers

Garcini and her fellow authors found that 23 percent of the study’s nearly 250 adult participants met criteria for having a mental disorder. Most prevalent were major depressive disorder (14 percent of study participants), panic disorder (8 percent), and generalized anxiety disorder (7 percent).

“Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to mental health service use for immigrants living in the country without documentation.”

“The estimates obtained in this study for depression and anxiety disorders were considerably higher in this population when compared with estimates for the general US population,” Garcini says. The National Comorbidity Survey Replication reported that approximately 7 percent of the US population suffers from major depressive disorder and 3 percent suffer from panic disorder and/or generalized anxiety disorder.

Findings from the study also showed that the prevalence for having a substance use disorder in this population (4 percent of study participants) was similar to that of the US general household population.

“This finding defies existing stereotypes that contribute to stigmatization of and discrimination against Mexican immigrants living in the US without documentation as a population with high prevalence of substance use,” Garcini says. “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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Garcini emphasizes that the daily stressors of these individuals, including stigma, language barriers, fear of deportation, family separation, and discrimination, are associated with the mental disorders. She says that the findings have important public health and clinical implications, including the need for the development and provision of contextually and culturally sensitive interventions.

Enduring, complicated debate

“Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to mental health service use for immigrants living in the country without documentation,” Garcini says.

“Debates on programs and policies pertaining to these individuals are complicated, and disagreement on immigration and welfare reform in the US is enduring. Rethinking procedures to create solutions based on data and creating new alternatives to facilitate access and provision of mental health services to this at-risk population is vital to protect their human rights and reduce mental health disparities in this community,” she says.

The study used respondent-driven sampling (a methodology based on a mathematical model of the social networks that connect individuals) to collect and analyze data from clinical interviews with 248 Mexican immigrants living in the country without legal authorization. The average age of the participants was 38 years; 69 percent were female and 31 percent were male. The majority of participants had been in the United States for more than 10 years. This study is one of the first to provide population-based estimates of the prevalence of current mental and substance-use disorders in this immigrant population.

“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 US without documentation, which is needed to inform advocacy, policy, and intervention efforts,” Garcini says.

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The paper appears in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Additional coauthors of the paper are from Rice University; the University of Denver; San Diego State University/University of California-San Diego; the University of Mexico; and the University of Central Florida.

A Ford Fellowship, a University of California MEXUS award, the Minority Biomedical Research Support Initiative for Maximizing Student Development and the Training, and Mentoring Program at the Institute for Behavioral and Community Health provided funding for the research. Peña received additional support from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Source: Rice University