The Tragic Impact of Today’s Blatant Racism on Our Kids’ Mental Health

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Photo Credit aljazeera.com

The second Monday in October has been a Federal holiday in the United States since 1937, a recognition of the encounter between Europe and America during colonial times. The observance is in the process of being renamed as Indigenous People’s Day, shifting its perspective from the “Columbus Day” years, during which we seemed to be against all logic celebrating the oppression, enslavement, and exploitation of the aboriginal Americans. 

These are post-post-colonial times, and we have been doing this work of filling in the gaping silences of history for some time. As we rapidly approach the yearly reminder of the origin story of the American nations and we recall the particulars of the history of the United States, we can’t help but remember that this has always been a nation of immigrants and that there has been racism for just as long.

Without an inherently racist view, the British would not have seen fit to install themselves on another people’s land, decimating their population both unwittingly and on purpose, mandating over a territory separated by a whole ocean from the ruling monarchs, iron-fisted. (Same goes for the Spanish and the Portuguese, as well as other European countries with smaller yet still thriving settlements in America). Without the institutionalization of this racism, the colonies would not have made business thrive through centuries of slavery, when yet another group of people was kidnapped and enslaved. 

By the time the colonies all finally freed themselves from European rule, the racism was saturated through, present and invisibly perverse. African-Americans remained enslaved from another century. The immigration paradigm became inverted though — the Europeans, once armed and dangerous, became victims of racism during the first waves of immigration in a post-Civil War United States. From the Reconstruction onward, immigrants who have followed have been, at least for some time, on the receiving end of bigotry and discrimination.

The history of immigration to the U.S. is long and spotted, and though I won’t be able to go much deeper than a rapid survey, it is of critical importance in understanding the history of racism. Waves of immigrants have arrived to the United States at different times, in response to the difficulties they have experienced at home. The trend in the late 1800s and into the mid-1900s was for European populations to immigrate, each nationality facing their own stereotypes they would need to push back against as they struggled to assimilate. As each wave became absorbed, new ones lapped up on shore and after the second world war, the number of people coming in from Latin America and Asia began to exceed the Europeans. 

This trend continues today, with México accounting for 25% of immigration to the United States, followed by China and India, both of which have significantly larger populations than any Latin country. The spots on the list with the highest rates of immigration to the United States today oscillates between Central or South American nations, and Asian countries, with European countries no longer contributing as significantly to the population. 

At this moment in history, Europe doesn’t need anything from the United States. Those first waves of immigration from Europe have been cauterized — they no longer bleed obviously, as people who are much more “of color” have continued to flow in, ready targets for discrimination and hatred. Asian immigrants continue to come in and face their own challenges here in terms of job prospects and plenty of racism that gets cast their way. But while southeast and south Asian immigrants have by and large been ignored by the current administration, leaving it up to each individual to fight the racism she encounters and carve out space for herself within the culture, Latinos have been clearly and repeatedly vilified.

The unhappy combination of being the most plentiful and the most scapegoated of immigrants have kept our Mexican brothers and sisters specifically in mealy mouths of this administration and the right-wing pundits. Other Latinos are not far behind, either in numbers or in pressure to withstand the various abuses, both in word and deed, that the current government and the press levies on Latin Americans, whether immigrants or not. This is one of the most tragic aspects of this situation: I am an adult and I feel as if it’s often impossible to unravel the spiteful rhetoric that skewers everyone from undocumented workers to American-born, brown-skinned people to asylum seekers. Children must only hear and see from the government’s speech and actions that all Latinos are unwelcome, “illegal,” suspicious. 

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Photo credit CNN.com

For the last few years, studies have shown that Latino and Native American children and teens, are the most depressed in the country, with over 22% reporting symptoms. Bookends of the immigration story in the United States, these two demographics suffer similar treatment in the face of discrimination and racism. Of all the stressors that were considered for this UT San Antonio study, not one can be fully divorced from the pervasiveness of racism in our country today. While discrimination itself is named at the second most harmful factor, we must consider that Latino youth endure and witness violence, poverty, bullying, migration, and difficult family situations, the other enumerated factors, quite directly as the result of or in connection with discrimination. 

Being exposed to the stress of migration and being disconnected from family and community is a great cause for anxiety and depression, the study found, leading between 8 and 12% of Latino youth to experience suicidal thoughts. Latino teens whose mental health has been impacted by bullying cite racism as the main cause for their social ostracism. Whether they were born here or arrived young, Hispanic children are enduring race-based bullying, and not only from their peers, the study concluded. Teachers are often guilty of discriminating against their Latino students, too. 

These individual encounters with bigotry do nothing good for young people who are often already marginalized by virtue of their economic situation, sometimes by their language, and always by their culture. But these factors have been present in the lives of immigrants and their descendants since those first waves of Europeans. Why is it so much more palpable now and why does it disproportionately affect Latinos above all other demographics currently? The answer is as simple as it is infuriating: some of the most powerful people in government model racist rhetoric and incite people to violence.

The studies conducted at UT San Antonio in 2017 clearly demonstrated a downward trend in Latino youths mental health. Traumatic episodes like the recent shooting in the border city of El Paso is pushing that trend into high drive. Latino adolescents aren’t just depressed because they are discriminated against. They are understandably anxious and fearful for their lives, after an armed white supremacist shot down a crowd of Latinos, citing the current president’s paranoid and inflammatory rhetoric as his motivation. 

The same administration that has been fanning the flames of racial hatred and singling out México as an antagonist (when the truth is that one third of the United States was, up until quite recently, México) has failed to realize its role in the incitation of violence. Leadership that provokes racial animus and aggression and does nothing to acknowledge, remedy, combat, or apologize for the bloodshed that results is enough to make any person of any age feel scared, hopeless, and depressed. 

Latino teens have gotten wise to the institutionalized racism. They have tuned their eyes and ears to perceive the constant micro-aggressions lobbed at them, even in seemingly meaningless gestures, like when an American-born white person refuses to distinguish between distinct Latin cultures, calling us all “Mexican” or “Spanish”. Frightened parents are also trying to change the tides by nurturing self love in their children and giving them plenty of reasons to be proud of themselves and they heritage. But even the most devoted and resolute amongst them quaver at the bleakness of the messaging we receive from this administration on race, ethnicity, and gender. 

The violence in that Walmart in El Paso touched the lives of Latinos living all around the country, because by now we understand that this grotesque display of white rage can happen anywhere and there’s a Walmart in every town. As extreme and traumatizing as the events of August 7th were, when 21 victims fell at the hand of this latest white supremacist, many more Latinos will have to overcome the emotional scars of a different sort of racial violence. 

Immigration-related arrests, processing, and deportations are a frequently cited as factors that stress our Latino youth. Research conducted at Oklahoma State University and published in an American Psychological Association journal that investigated the specific mental health challenges across demographics, and determined that children who have at least one undocumented parent (20%, per the study) are far more depressed than children who don’t and that, according to similar logic, children who had experienced the immigration arrest of a family member (29%) had endured trauma that negatively impacts their state of mind. And this is just counting the children who weren’t too frightened to disclose that information. 

Yes, I had to quote a study that took the time to examine how being spoken about en masse in extraordinarily bad light and targeted for brutalizing anti-immigration treatment makes Latino children feel badly, anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. This should be obvious and perhaps could be corrected for were the rhetoric not seeping into schools, churches, offices, and other spaces that ought to be safe from discrimination. 

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What is perhaps not as obvious is that Latinas in their adolescent years are suffering the most. Middle school years are tumultuous enough, but these young girls have an additional layer of emotional stress and often times of household responsibility, which makes the more prone to suicidal thoughts and exacerbates any underlying mental health issues. The blatant racism of today is good for no one, but amongst the most beaten down by it are our young women, who were already the most vulnerable. 

The worst part is that according to all the studies, even as the first victims of the insidious hate speech and actions of those who should protect instead, Latino children are nearly half as likely as their white counterparts to mental health services. Of course, it’s not just our children. Latinos in general are not as likely to access mental health services as other races, and there are cultural reasons behind it. 

Traditional psychotherapy, for example, wouldn’t be as effective amongst people less likely to talk about their problems with a stranger. As a Jewish Latina raised in the post-Freud, post-Holocaust world, therapy is pretty much prescribed for me on contact. But when I learned more about post-Soviet Russian culture, for example, I saw why a people who instinctively fear disclosing personal information to an authority that could disappear them for it, would never think to lie on someone’s couch and pour out their hearts. 

Similarly, Latinos are not culturally coded to assume they can solve their problems by talking about them, as some of these obstacles require far more emergent and concrete solutions. In some cases, there may be a language barrier and insufficient Spanish-speaking providers in the area. This all keeps many from even reaching out for help. Additionally CBT and other forms of behavior conditioning and training are perhaps less appealing to patients whose trauma is specifically related to distrust of the authorities. 

Our Latino children’s deteriorating rates of mental health are linked to factors such as struggling with food inequality, lesser resources, and inferior access to public services, but they are at a fever-pitch when you add to that family separation, immigration violence, and downright fear. Their race in the mouth of talking heads on the television daily are of no help. But here is a list of things that can be:

—Let’s turn off those televisions and turn our attention to doing all we can to counteract the racism in our daily lives. Speak, walk, live against racism and call out those who are for it.

—Don’t stop letting your representatives know how you feel about immigration policy, family separation, and racist political agendas.

—Vote!

—Seek out and support resources like: 

Minerva Pérez in East Hampton, who organizes services for the Latino community there. In Maryland, http://www.layc-dc.org/

The National Alliance on Mental Illness organizes resources by location 

Help keep families together https://www.familiesbelongtogether.org/

LatinoNetwork around the country with school-based programs