Deportation and Detentions Linked to Worse Youth Mental Health

The removal of a family member was associated with increased suicidal thoughts.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

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Latina and Latino teens who have experienced the detention or deportation of a family member may struggle with more suicidal thoughts, alcohol use, and risky behavior than their peers, according to a recent study.

The Trump administration’s strict immigration policies have led hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants to be detained or deported. Many of those individuals have a family surrounding them—daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren—and mounting evidence indicates that those young people face difficult, and sometimes deadly, mental health challenges.

“Almost 90 percent of these youth are U.S. citizens. These youth are going to be our next generation of leaders in the labor force and other industries as they grow into adulthood,” says Kathleen Roche, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.  

In 2017, the Trump administration unleashed a barrage of executive orders and regulatory changes to target undocumented individuals—from expanding the range of noncitizens who were prioritized for deportation, to stripping funding from states with sanctuary cities, to directing the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 additional immigration enforcement officers. Overall, the government broadened the targeting of border crossings and criminals to include undocumented immigrants who had lived in the country for years as law-abiding residents, Roche says.

Roche and her colleagues surveyed 547 Latino and Latina adolescents between 11 and 14 years old. They were primarily United States citizens, all middle schoolers in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

One in four reported having a family member who was detained or deported in the past year. Six months later, adolescents with a detained or deported family member were more than twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts. They were about three times as likely to have begun drinking from a young age. They were more likely to show problematic behaviors such as aggression and skipping school.

The findings are correlational, but the researchers controlled for many variables, including an elevated baseline risk for families who had been targeted for immigration enforcement. The results were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Adolescence is a sensitive time to endure a trauma such as losing a parent, says Gabriela Livas Stein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who was not involved with the research. The brain is still developing and forming one's sense of identity, agency, and boundaries. Trauma in adolescence can fundamentally reorganize one’s understanding of the world.

Children coming of age in this era, especially those who experience the detention or deportation of a family member, may face broken relationships, disrupted education, and discrimination. Without familial and educational support, substance use and suicidal ideation tend to continue or worsen, Stein says. “The Latinx community experiences the greatest rates of suicidality compared to other ethnic and racial groups, except for American Indians, in the United States,” Stein says. “Without the connection of family, there could be a greater risk of suicidality.”

Stein has witnessed this collapse firsthand. One teen boy she worked with did well in school and hoped to become a doctor. When his father was detained, the teen entered a constant state of uncertainty. He believed that school was pointless and that he should be making money to care for his family instead, so he stopped going. “If a classmate just mentioned doing something with his dad, it would send him down a spiral,” Stein says. In the end, the boy’s father was not deported and he returned home after a year and a half.

Other studies have identified similar trends in youth mental health. Children were more likely to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as reported by their parents, if a parent was detained or deported than if a parent was a legal permanent resident or was undocumented but didn’t have contact with immigration officials, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Psychological Trauma.

Researchers from the University of Texas found that the threat of family separation was the biggest stressor faced by children with undocumented Mexican parents. “The potential for a forced separation was never far from the minds of the youth in our study. Indeed, the ‘deportability’ of their parents was described overwhelmingly as a major cause for emotional distress,” the authors wrote in a 2017 article.

In addition to revealing the psychological harm of losing a parent, research also shows the role parents may play in cultivating psychological strength. “Involvement from both mothers and fathers is highly correlated with almost every positive dimension of youth functioning you can imagine, including well-being, self-esteem, hope, optimism, school performance, peer affiliations, and positive values,” says University of Miami public health professor Seth Schwartz.

How can society address the fallout for Latino and Latina youth? First, Roche says, parents should watch for changes in their child’s behavior, especially because kids may not want to burden parents with their own worries about deportation. Second, parents and adolescents may benefit from leaning on connections outside of the family such as teachers and primary care physicians. Third, eliminating some of the policies that instill fear in their communities will make it more likely that families will seek care themselves.

“Given all the policy changes, we know that folks are not accessing health care in the way they used to,” Stein says. “What’s alarming to me is thinking that not only are these kids at high risk, but they’re also likely not getting help.”