New Study Shows Undocumented Latina Immigrants Endure PTSD Four Times as Much as Everyone Else in the Country

Children PTSD BELatina
A Mission Police Dept. officer (L), and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas John Moore—Getty Images

Mental health in the Latino community is a difficult topic to approach and cover. Old school practices and beliefs that have kept generations of families from expressing or talking about mental health have made it difficult for younger generations to have intergenerational conversations about the topic. When the immigration experience and or immigration status of an individual is added to this culture it can be even more difficult for people to grasp and express what they are experiencing.

A recent study conducted Associate Professors Dr. Carol Cleaveland and Dr. Cara Frankenfeld from the George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services found that Latina immigrants face Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at four times the national rate. The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as, “a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.” Symptoms of PTSD are generally broken down into four groups: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. All of the grouped symptoms can affect ones day-to-day life in a myriad of ways and may show up any given time after said traumatic event. 

For many immigrants, leaving their home country is often the result of some form of push out. Either as a result of the United States propensity for international interference in Latin American countries, which was kicked off more than 100 years ago with the Monroe Doctrine, the need for medical attention, or lower employment or educational opportunities. Whatever the reason, people have been immigrating or fleeing to the United States of years and the trauma that goes into the immigration experience – before, during, and after – comes at a mental and emotional cost to many immigrants.
Leaving one’s country, family, and region is a difficult decision to make. These difficult decisions can leave one feeling alone, frightened, scared, and hopeful all at once. The thought of knowing that once you leave your home you may never be able to return is not a decision often made lightly. More often than not people who are immigrating as a result of push out have exhausted all options available to them where they are and know this journey to the United States might be one last attempt at changing their present circumstances. 

PTSD BELatina

Through the study, researchers set out to ascertain whether Latina immigrant clients of a healthcare clinic for uninsured patients suffer a higher rate of PTSD compared to the citizen population at large and explore whether factors unique to immigrants, such as surviving human smuggling, would predict PTSD. Their sample size was 62 Latinas who receive services at a clinic staffed by the college’s faculty, staff, and students. Researchers used questionnaires and in depth interviews to get qualitative data from the women they sampled. 

Building off of the previous work of Dr. Cleaveland, in which she researched the effects that human smuggling has on women who are smuggled from Mexico into the United States, this new study wanted to further explore the themes of violence during the smuggling process. In her previous study, Dr. Cleaveland found that trauma and violence were a recurring theme for women. In order to better serve the patients at the clinic, Dr. Cleaveland found it important to better understand how the women who attend the clinic and come to the clinic with layered traumatic experiences as a result of sexual, physical, mental, and financial abuse while they are being smuggled into the United States affects their care. 

Human smuggling, rape, and violence have long been used as tactics by cartels that prey on the desperation of people wanting to cross into the United States but fear doing so on their own. Colloquially referred to as Coyotes – human smugglers – have built entire businesses around moving people across the border for a price. A 2014 Latino USA piece highlighted how often times children and women are smuggled across the border by coyotes because they statistically have a higher chance of death when crossing on their own. Of course, when there is no oversight, people are desperate, and women are often alone with men who literally hold their lives in their hands coyotes are at the liberty to abuse and treat people who they are smuggling in any way they please.

Women who are smuggled across the border often recall experiencing a number of abuses at the hands of smugglers and border agents whom are often paid off by smuggling cartels. Often times, if children are present older women in the group might feel compelled to accept whatever abuse is about to be doled out to the child to keep them safe. Additionally, even if smuggling cost – which can cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars – are paid up front, there is nothing to stop the cartel from extorting thousands of dollars from the people the are transporting and their families. If someone is unable to pay, they are killed on the spot, in front of everyone.  

Penal immigration laws in the United States, hostility on the United States Mexican border, and regressive and intentionally stalled federal immigration policies create the perfect environment for coyotes to prosper. A coyote named Daniel told Vice News that Trump’s rhetoric and tactics help him market his services better and that no matter what happens smugglers will always win.  

In short, immigration is a traumatic experience for anyone and can be disproportionality traumatic for women. 

Dior Vargas PTSD
Photo Credit IG @nyugph
NYU College of Global Public Health

Once a Latina has reached the United States she is still under stress from her job, family expectations, possible expectations from family in their home country, the hostile immigration atmosphere within the states, and reeling from trauma experienced during the border crossing. After risking their lives to come to the United States, these women have few resources and are still under the stress of potential arrest and deportation,” explains Cleaveland. “Moreover, they have to live in isolation from their family members in their countries of origin. All these factors make it much harder to recover from the previous experiences that caused their PTSD.”

A recommendation of the researchers is for more research to be done in order to fully understand the scope of PTSD Latina immigrant women encounter and deal with and that this should be in conjunction with mental and emotional support services.

Hopefully the work of researchers combined with immigration rights activist and Latina mental health activist like Dior Vargas, who seeks to remove the stigma around mental health in Latinx communities, can help immigrant communities’ health from trauma and live healthy and prosperous lives.