Protection From Mental Illness Not Uniform for Immigrant Groups
> 3/25/2008 1:33:00 PM

Researchers have long been aware that immigrants to the United States, particularly Latinos, seem to have some protection against mental illness. Latinos face a lower risk of developing all psychiatric disorders (with the exception of agoraphobia), but they do not pass this protection on to children born in the United States. This phenomenon may contain vital clues to methods of preventing mental illness, but it will only be helpfully if we can fully understand it. Towards this end, Dr. Margarita Alegrķa led an attempt to find patterns more specific than a blanket protection. Her illuminating reevaluation appears in the March issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The 2005 National Comorbidity Survey Replication was comprehensive and expertly conducted, but its analysis section failed to break respondents into ethnic groups, leaving open the possibility that large variations were glossed over in the mix. Dr. Alegrķa disaggregated this data, and combined it with the National Latino and Asian American Study to create sample sizes large enough to collect statistically valid numbers for each sub-group. 

Close analysis showed that protection varied widely between ethnic groups: the rate of any lifetime disorder for Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Cubans was 37.4 percent, 29.5 percent, and 28.2 percent respectively. Digging even deeper, it became apparent that some groups had protection against all disorders while some had protection against only a few. For example, Mexicans showed strong protection against a long list of problems-- all depressive disorders, social phobias, anxiety disorders, and substance disorders --while Cubans had protection only against substance disorders.

These differences are fascinating because, since economic status was corrected for, they point to specific aspects of culture or childhood environment that may help prepare the mind to deal with problems. If we can isolate the factors that protect a specific group from substance disorders, whether it is the family structure, the moral system, or the view of entertainment, therapists may be able to use these systems to support all of their patients, and community leaders may be able to focus their attention on shoring up the systems that could keep their children healthy. The question can also be flipped to ask what it is about American culture that wears down natural or nuture-based protections. The authors of this study throw out a number of possibilities-- the pressure to be productive, alienating social structures-- but more study is needed to find the answer. With other societies to compare ourselves to, we may gain the perspective necessary to see the risks and protections in our own, diverse communities.

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