Traumatized at the Border: How to Support Migrant Mental Health

Artwork by Miguel Repiso of Argentina, depicting the nightmare of detention that many migrants face. This piece is a part of the “Sueños sin fronteras” [Dreams Without Borders] exhibit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. 
Trauma: the result of exposure to death or serious injury. In the case of child migrants in the United States, trauma can include being violently ripped away from your caregivers–exactly what has been happening for the last six months at the U.S.-Mexico border (see my last post for more details).

According to this Chicago Health article, family separation can lead to a lifetime of adverse mental health for children and their parents. This The Atlantic documentary depicts precisely the kind of trauma that the article describes:

As the article and video depict, families remain at risk for trauma, even after reunification. As we see in the video, once reunited, 5 year old Jenri appears to be happy-go-lucky, telling his mom stories about his time in the hielera [icebox], even giving her a bracelet he made for her while in the detention center. But within minutes, his affect changes and he seems paralyzed by his tears, saying things like, “Quiero regresar al carcel” [“I want to return to the jail”] and “No me quieres…ya no eres mi mamá” [“You don’t love me…you’re not my mom anymore”].

Unfortunately, while the kind of trauma may change, adverse mental health is a common problem among migrants around the world. For example, migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa are also severely at risk for adverse mental health issues. However, as this El País article demonstrates, the southern border of Spain may be unique among border regions throughout the world, as local public health organizations have prioritized offering free psychological assistance to recently arrived migrants. Migrants often exhibit anxiety and various kinds of post-traumatic shocks, experiencing anything from night terrors to panic attacks, which Spanish psychologists are actively trying to treat.

Given that the United States is still living through the effects of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy“, it is imperative that communities in the U.S. follow southern Spain’s lead and prioritize mental health once migrants are within U.S. borders. As the Chicago Health article outlines, “the path to wellness includes giving migrants a safe space to process their [traumatic] experience”. While this article gives examples of therapists treating migrants at agencies similar to those in Spain, given that the United States government is responsible for multiplying the trauma that these young children (and their families) are now facing, communities in the U.S. need to provide more “safe spaces” and do more to support migrants’ mental health.

One potential solution could be to enlist school communities to support families who have experienced the trauma of family separation. Fortunately, there are various resources available for teachers and school administrators to create safe and supportive environments for their students and families. This article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education shares several examples of how to support students, which include:

  • Being “champions for migrant children” by making school a welcoming place and offering a stable routine.
  • Prioritizing family support by providing various social services, in order to mediate parents’ stress, which in turn makes them “more responsive caregivers”.  
  • Developing awareness and sensitivity trainings among staff.
  • Revising curriculum to be culturally appropriate and focused on “educating for diversity”.

Whether in schools or migrant resettlement non-profits, communities across the U.S. must develop responsive mental health support systems for the thousands of migrant children and their families that are being integrated into American life. To neglect to do so would be abhorrent, and would only prove that the U.S. immigration system is a dehumanizing one that condones psychological violence.

Lucas, Á. (2018, September 21). Sensibilidad para tratar la salud mental de los migrantes. El País.

Napoletano, E. (2018, September 10). Family separation at the border can cause long-term trauma. Chicago Health.

Raff, J. (2018, September 7). Traumatized children at the border. The Atlantic.

Repiso, M. (n.d.). Untitled. United Nations. UNICEF & UNHCR. (2018, September 23). Siete millones de migrantes y refugiados en las Américas tienen menos de 18 años. 

Shafer, L. & Walsh, B. (2018, July 19). Migration, separation, and trauma. Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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