Migration mentally taxing for Mexicans

UC DAVIS (US) — Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. are more likely to experience significant mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, than those who do not immigrate.

Migrants between the ages of 18 and 25 are at the greatest risk—nearly four-and-one-half times greater—than their same-age peers who remain in Mexico.

“We had a unique opportunity to examine the effect of migration by comparing migrants with people in their country of origin who did not migrate,” says Joshua Breslau,  associate professor of internal medicine at University of California, Davis.

“The results suggest that after migrating from Mexico to the U.S., migrants are more likely to develop significant mental-health problems than individuals who remained in Mexico.”

The study is reported in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

“From the Mexican side, this study is very important, because most of what we know about what is happening to the population when they are in the United States is based on studies carried out in the U.S. only,” says Guilherme Borges, professor of psychiatry at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Now, for the first time, we have data that compares the situation in the U.S. and in Mexico.”

There are approximately 12 million people born in Mexico living in the U.S. constituting approximately 30 percent of the foreign-born U.S. population and nearly 25 percent of the total U.S. Hispanic population of close to 50 million.

The study compared the risks among adult migrants and nonmigrants of experiencing a first-onset depressive disorder, that includes major depressive episode, chronic depression, and dysthymia (less severe chronic depression) or an anxiety disorder, that includes generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, social phobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study analyzed data from interviews with approximately 550 male and female Mexican-born migrants and approximately 2,500 non-migrant Mexicans, controlling for differences between migrants and nonmigrants that might affect their risk for mood and anxiety disorders, including differences in socioeconomic status.

Risk of depression or anxiety was assessed through the use of an epidemiological survey tool that was administered in respondents’ homes by trained non-clinician interviewers using laptop computers. Study participants in the United States could respond to survey questions either in English or in Spanish.

Comparing migrants with same-aged nonmigrant family members still living in Mexico, the study 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.

In this age group, the odds of experiencing an anxiety disorder among migrants relative to non-migrants was 3.4 — or more nearly three-and-one-half times greater — compared with odds of 1.8 for the entire sample.

The study found that the difference between the risk of experiencing anxiety or depression for migrants versus nonmigrants was not statistically significant for those over 36.

“This study confirms our earlier research that suggests that the longer immigrants remain in their country of origin, the lower the likelihood that they will develop anxiety and mood disorders,” says Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, professor of clinical internal medicine at UC Davis.

“Conversely, there is evidence that the younger the Mexican migrants are when they arrive in the U.S., the greater their propensity to develop these disorders.

“We tend to be very disease-specific when we address migrant health, focusing on HIV or tuberculosis, for example. But this is an enormous global population whose broadly based health-care needs have largely been overlooked,” says Marc Schenker, UC Davis professor of public health sciences.

“Within the range of health conditions, mental-health in particular has not been addressed. Migrants experience a wide range of mental-problems that are exacerbated by the enormous stresses of  political and economic disenfranchisement and victimization. Only a bi-national or multinational approach will be effective in improving this picture.”

U.S.-Mexican migrants are a unique “floating population” that travels between the two countries frequently, says Borges.

“This study is important because it shows that the stresses that result from the Mexican-U.S. migration process have to be addressed by efforts from both countries. If you want to target this population successfully, you need to design programs that have an impact on both sides of the border.”

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