Latinx Immigration: A Trauma of the Journey

Latino immigrants migrate to the United States from approximately 26 nations and experience significant differences in language, ethnicity, economic status, and culture. The Latino community represents the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. Today, Latino immigrants make up 14% of the U.S. population. 

Within the next two decades, studies project that persons of Latino heritage will be our largest minority group, representing more than 20% of the total U.S. population. 

Exposure to Trauma 

Stressors in the migration process can be linked to forms of mental illness that may include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and increased rates of other psychiatric disorders. Trauma-related to the migration process has three temporal points. Immigrants may experience traumatic effects of anyone, or all, of these time-defined arcs in the process. 

Pre-migration Trauma 

Pre-migration trauma refers to trauma experienced in the community of origin during that period of time directly prior to migration, and it often includes circumstances or events that lead to relocation. Pre-migration trauma is frequently caused by extreme poverty, abuse, rape, imprisonment, war, and separation from family. Mental health literature gives evidence to support the idea that those individual experiences that took place prior to migration are directly linked to psychological conditions that may be experienced several years after immigrants have settled in a new country. 

Migration Trauma 

According to recent studies, clinical levels of psychological distress may also be associated with trauma suffered during the transit to a new land. Migration is a dangerous process for many. Women, in particular, have reported months of sexual assault and forced labor in order to reach their destination. In transit, many immigrants witness the disappearance and death of friends and family, while others are captured and sold into bondage.

Post-migration Trauma

Even after surviving trauma in their homelands and distress during migration, many immigrants face extensive trauma after arriving in the United States. Latino immigrants come with hopes for work and a better life, yet they are often faced with unemployment, inadequate living conditions, limited social support, discrimination, and barriers to obtaining mental health and other services. High levels of acculturative stress, along with previous stressors, increase psychological distress and put Latino immigrants at a higher risk for the development of psychological problems.

Latinx Community: Cultural Considerations 

Latinx culture plays a significant role in an immigrant’s views of mental illness and access to community services. Latino culture contributes to the underutilization of mental health services. The Latino community often perceives mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression that may develop during immigration, as manifestations of physical or spiritual problems. Therefore, they are more likely to seek medical attention for somatic complaints without discussing the root cause of distress. This causes them to seek treatment from a physician rather than a social worker or psychologist. 

Familism is one’s strong identification and loyalty to family. Because of strong family ties, persons of Latinx heritage are more likely to seek help from within the family system. Latinx families supply significant levels of support during times of psychological distress. Likewise, family members report high levels of satisfaction with the support received. Latinx culture also places a greater stigma on psychiatric disorders than Eurocentric ethnic groups. Latinx persons are less likely to see the importance of utilizing mental health services because their cultural collectivisms encourage strong dependency on the family and the church.

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