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Migrant Justice: Central American Youth Migrants Show Signs of PTSD and Stress

Thank you to the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies at American University for this news article . 

By Daniel Jenks and Ernesto Castañeda*

image courtesy of  Peter Haden/ FlickrCreative Commons License

The trauma experienced by Central American minors before, during, and after their unaccompanied journeys to the United States puts them at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems, creating further obstacles to their success in school and broader integration into U.S. society. New research into results from the CLALS Pilot Project Household Contexts and School Integration of Resettled Migrant Youth, which included interviews and qualitative surveys (including a validated PHQ-9 Modified for Teens and the Child PTSD Symptom Scale, CPSS), revealed that about one-third of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala show symptoms of moderate to severe PTSD — significantly higher than the general population.

  • The study team interviewed or administered surveys to more than 100 subjects, including youths who arrived in Maryland before 2017, their parents, and social service providers, teachers, and local officials. At least 20 percent of the youth respondents exhibited symptoms of mild or moderate depression, and 38 percent said that they felt sad or depressed most days during the last year.

Many of the youths suffered deeply from separation from parents who preceded them in traveling to the United States, sometimes blaming them for problems and abuses they suffered back home, but they generally fared better than those whose parents had not emigrated. Those most deeply harmed were forced from their homes by gang violence, police corruption, and other symptoms of low state capacity, and suffered trauma along the journey to the United States. They were able to come to the U.S. and escape those problems because they had family in the United States.

  • Carlos, who migrated when he was 15 years old, left El Salvador because he was facing death threats from local gangs because he refused to join. He was scared to go to home and school. Other youths experienced pre-migration trauma that included natural disasters, war, gang violence, victimization, witnessing a crime, physical and sexual abuse, or attacks based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Other studies document the particular abuses faced by girls and young women.)
  • Migrating from Honduras at 13 years old, Samantha was on a bus near the Guatemala-Mexico border when gangs barricaded its door and threatened to set it on fire if they were not given a hefty fee. For the rest of the trip through Mexico, the coyotes gave her and others enough to eat only once a day. Indeed, the increased risk of undernutrition, dehydration, assault, kidnapping, and other forms of violence was common for unaccompanied youths.

Inside the United States, many face the stresses of family reunification and issues of acculturation, although our research indicates that the resulting anxiety is less severe than from the in-country and en-route traumas they experience. One mitigating factor is having access and feeling welcome to use supportive social services, education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

  • Resentment toward parents who “abandoned” them in Central America — even those parents who were loving, reliable providers — is often deep. School challenges, language struggles, and stress related to their own legal status or that of their family further tax mental health. Complex, intimidating legal proceedings, threats of deportation, and prolonged forced separation from family get many youths off to a stressful start. Many also experience discrimination and hate crimes, becoming more aware of them as they learn English. Real or perceived lack of access to social services exacerbates stresses, and fear of dealing with authorities means that many problems go unreported.
  • Some learn to prosper. Diana, a 16-year-old from El Salvador, was scared and apprehensive when she started school in Maryland, but she found friends whom she could trust and could help her in school, and her mood improved drastically for the better.

We found that the psychological distress and disorders experienced by Central American youths in a troubling number of cases can exacerbate existing obstacles to integration, family reunification, and success in school. These obstacles, in turn, can create new stressors that exacerbate PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

  • Dealing with the traumas that plague youths in Central America is a massive undertaking that, rhetorically at least, the United States and Central American governments are addressing. Inside the United States, successful cases show that the cycle of further trauma exposure, depression, and PTSD can be overcome by making migrant processing more humane, increasing access to mental health services and education, and providing guarantees of protection to those who seek help – reforms that will be very challenging. The underlying problems are deep-rooted, and even when the Executive or Legislative branch pushes particular elements of reform, change will be hard to implement because of institutional and cultural barriers.

August 26, 2021

Ernesto Castañeda directs the Immigration Lab and teaches sociology at American University, and Daniel Jenks is the Lab’s deputy director. This article is adapted from their full study published in Trauma Care journal.