Researchers Focus on the Mental Health of Immigrants
> 1/11/2008 1:15:09 PM

According to previous research, Latino immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to develop psychiatric disorders, and researchers have surmised that foreign nativity offers some protection from mental illness. However, in a study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Dr. Margarita Alegria of Harvard University found that foreign nativity is not the only factor affecting the mental health of Latino immigrants.

Using data from the National Latino and Asian-American Study (NLAAS), the researchers divided a group of Latino immigrants into two categories: later-arriving immigrants (LAI),  those who came to America after the age of six, and immigrants who were in the U.S. as children (IUSC), a category which included immigrants who arrived before the age of six as well as the American-born children of immigrants. Those in the LAI category might have had limited knowledge of English and were likely to have maintained a closer connection to the customs and values of their native country than those in the IUSC category. The participants were further divided into groups by country of origin, allowing the researchers to investigate other circumstances that may contribute to mental health problems.

When considering a number of factors, the influence of foreign nativity was not as powerful as had been previously thought. Initially, LAI Mexicans appeared to have lower rates of depression than IUSC Mexicans, but when the researchers adjusted for family stress and social status, the differences between these groups became statistically insignificant. The researchers also found no differences in the risk for anxiety disorders between LAI and IUSC Latinos. Those experiencing family conflict were at risk for mood disorders, while immigrants who had arrived in America before the age of 25 and who lived in disadvantaged neighborhoods were at risk for substance abuse. The research indicates that some factors may help immigrants adapt to a new country while also maintaining good mental health, including family cohesion, living in a good neighborhood, and positive perception of social standing.

It may be possible that immigrants use mental health services less frequently than their children and other American-born individuals, and this may result in under-diagnosis of problems among this population. Cultural differences can also become a significant barrier to mental health care. Racial and ethnic disparities in mental health care continue to exist, and continued research is necessary to identify the specific needs of these groups and develop programs and services targeting them. By recognizing the needs of groups that may have been overlooked in the past, we can ensure that more people will be able to seek help for their problems.

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