New study finds severe toll on mental health of undocumented immigrant youth

THE University of California, Los Angeles Dream Resource Center released an inclusive new study on Tuesday, April 21, which looks at the mental health of one of the nation’s most ignored populations: undocumented immigrant youth.

The unprecedented report, called “Pol[ICE] in my Head,” is part of the Dream Resource Center’s five-part study that highlights key issues faced by undocumented immigrants, especially healthcare-related problems. It focuses on how the threat of deportation ultimately affects the mental—and also physical—health of undocumented youth.

“Policing is prevalent in our community, so much that we don’t need the law enforcement because we police ourselves,” said Alma Leyva, lead researcher of the report. “Policing and self-monitoring heavily impact our mental health, but it has become so normal that we see it as the price we have to pay for being undocumented.”

“Undocumented and Uninsured” is the first comprehensive study compiled by undocumented immigrants, whose lives are their own research and are impacted by the findings. Doneby immigrants, for immigrants, the Dream Resource Center (DRC) at UCLA gives people a unique opportunity to engage in the research themselves, instead of just being studied.

The DRC’s goal is to engage community efforts and to hear the powerful stories of immigrants, whose voices often go unheard, in order to provide better resources and opportunities for living in this nation.

Parts 1 and 2 of the report focus more on the lack of access to health insurance and insufficient healthcare methods many undocumented youth are forced to take in order to avoid risk of deportation.

Neglecting health can have an effect on many immigrants, especially mentally, as rising levels of paranoia can take a severe toll on families.

Even those who have received temporary deportation reprieve through the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program continue to be “hypervigilant,” fearing that their temporary status could be taken away.

For Katia Diaz, an undocumented student from Sacramento, Calif., her father’s deportation triggered greater hypervigilance within her family, and they became more withdrawn, living in great fear.

“I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it with my friends because I didn’t know if immigration was going to come for my family as well,” she said.

According to the research, 83 percent of youth have reported self-monitoring, or “heightened caution” in their daily lives– from staying at home to avoid drawing attention to themselves, to evading problems with institutional barriers, such as schools or job environments or encounters with law enforcement.

“Under the amount of excessive surveillance, [immigrants] are living in constant fear, always on high alert…at times the fear is so bad that they avoid leaving their house altogether; resulting in isolation, loneliness, and high levels of stress or even depression,” said Leyva. “Self monitoring is a method of survival.”

For immigrant youth, life is about surviving instead of thriving; being able to make it through the day without encounters that could put them “in vulnerable situations,” such as possible deportation.

Despite the high levels of stress, the report also found that only 19 percent of those surveyed participate in therapeutic support groups to address their mental health needs. Cultural stigmas, immigration status, and the lack of culturally relevant and sensitive programs often deter undocumented youth from taking advantage of the health services available to them.

The CIRCLE Project, an immigrant-led mental health and support program, aims to create a safe, communal space to share experiences and promotes healing and support for those with mental issues.

“We host talking circles to provide peer support for immigrants dealing with isolation, depression, and overall stress,” said Lilian Saldana, coordinator of CIRCLE. “We don’t make them over-share or relive their experiences; rather, we develop trained professionals to address these very real issues and promote self-empowerment. We are also uniquely the first in the nation to provide this type of support.”

She added, “We need to educate everyone about the importance of mental health, to reduce social and cultural stigmas surrounding the undocumented community, as well as negative stigmas surrounding mental health.”

For the Asian and Pacific Islander community, the findings outlined in the DRC’s report are serious. With roughly 1.5 million undocumented API immigrants currently in the US and over 410,000 in California alone, the effects of mental health issues in these individuals are vast, the study informed.

“Addressing mental health issues within the immigrant community is so crucial,” shared Trina Pasumbal of ASPIRE-LA, an API immigrant youth-led organization. “We need to find ways and spaces that can heal us back to love and wellness.”

Filipinos make up the second largest undocumented API population, after Chinese immigrants. In 2011, 1 in every 8 API immigrant was undocumented—a 35 percent increase of undocumented Filipinos in the US.

“Although many often think that as Asians we go under one big umbrella, our immigration experiences as different cultural communities are all vastly different,” Pasumbal continued. “That’s why mental health is such a huge issue—it affects not just some, but all of us.”

She also brought up disturbing new research from the Minority Health Department, which cited only 18 percent of API high school students report suicidal tendencies along with feelings of hopelessness and depression. According to the department’s report, the top cause of premature death in the API community after heart disease is suicide.

Asian women are especially affected by suicidal tendencies: plagued by unrealistic cultural expectations and the model minority stereotype, they “often witness depression within their own families.”

The lack of knowledge of serious mental health issues, the report stated, is not often freely talked about. Groups like the CIRCLE Project and ASPIRE-LA provide safe healing spaces where these issues can be openly discussed, as well as ongoing research and resources to help immigrant communities, such as

“We need to understand that there is a human being underneath these labels, who needs help and resources to be healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually,” continued Saldana. “When we as human beings are not well, our community is not healthy.”

(LA Midweek April 22-24, 2015 Sec. A pg.1)

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