Migrating Impacts Mental Health, Study Says

Migrating significantly impacts a person’s mental health, a recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found.

The study is the first one suggesting migrating to the U.S. places someone at “clinically significant” mental-health problems.

"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," said lead study author Joshua Breslau, an associate professor of internal medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine and a researcher with the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities. "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 says Mexicans ages 18 to 25 who migrate to the United States are four-and-a-half times more likely to suffer depression than those who stay in their home country. They are also three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer anxiety than those who did not migrate, the study says.

"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," said Guilherme Borges, senior researcher with the National Institute of Psychiatry, Mexico, and 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."

About 12 million Mexicans live in the U.S. – and make up 25 percent of the total U.S. Hispanic population, which is at about 50 million.

About 550 Mexican-born migrants and 2,500 Mexicans who live in their home country were interviewed for the study. Participants responded in either English or Spanish.

The study found that migrants at greatest risk were the youngest – those 18-25 years old at the time of the study.

The reason for the high depression could be found in prior studies – which found that adopting the American culture, or acculturation, is the reason for the deteriorating mental health when Mexicans arrive in the U.S.

"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," said senior study author Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, professor of clinical internal medicine, director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities and an author of the earlier studies.

Prior studies have also show Mexican men are the least likely to seek help for depression.

One expert said when immigrants are studied, researchers tend to focus on other health issues like diabetes and weight problems and ignore their mental health.

"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," said Marc Schenker, UC Davis professor of public health sciences and director of the Migration and Health Research Center.

"And 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," Schenker said.

Borges of the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico said Mexican-Americans tend to live in two worlds – a world they live in, and another in which they travel to frequently. He called them a "floating population.”

"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,” he said. “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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