Latinx youth mental health: Resiliency and its limitations

Ten years ago, Iowa became home to largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in the country (at that time) when 900 immigration officers arrested 398 workers at Agriprocessors, Inc in one day. After the raid, many families that were left behind exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and schools reported an increase in behavior issues, as well as students dropping out of high school to provide for their families. A 2017 study found that infants born to Latina mothers after the Postville raid had a 24% greater risk of low-birth weight compared to previous years. Thus, we are beginning to understand the effects of immigration enforcement on the mental and physical health of Latino immigrants in the Iowa.

As Iowa’s leading educational organization for Latinx students, Al Éxito’s mission is to support the leadership development of Latinx youth though civic engagement, college and career readiness, family support and cultural celebration. In order to continue meeting its mission, Al Éxito identified the need to better understand how youth in the program understood mental health care after students and facilitators reported high levels of stress and mental health crises such as suicide attempts.

Therefore in 2018, Al Éxito has conducted focus groups about youth mental health with 60 middle and high school students across Iowa along with a mental health survey with 120 respondents. In the focus groups, students discussed barriers to receiving help or medical treatment when dealing with traumatic events or mental illness. One consistent issue for youth was lack of access to care due to their financial means and/or lack of health insurance and stigma from peers and parents.

When Resiliency is Not Enough

Beyond lack of access to medical treatment, Latino youth find themselves struggling with the reality of the current political climate in the United States. A main component of our conversations explored the feelings of fear and anxiety derived from knowing that their family, friends, or community members can be taken from the country at any time. They explored how mental health is impacted by immigration status, class, disability, LGBT identity and the combination of these identities. Their stories are another reminder that our political reality affects our physical, mental and emotional state.

Latinx youth in the state of Iowa are resilient. On average, their family income is half of their than their White counterparts[1], they attend schools where they feel stereotyped for being Latino[2], and live with fears about family separation. Students shared stories of working multiple jobs to provide for their family and of planning to become second parents to their siblings, “in case anything happens” to their parents. Despite this, each session ended with students sharing what kinds of things improved their mental health, or made them feel “well,” this included church, time with family, sports, art, time with friends, etc. The young people in the Latinx community are learning to take care of entire family units as they age, they are demonstrating resiliency and real care for their families and communities. Yet, many of their fears are typical of adolescent development, like beginning to date, worrying about their life after high school, and figuring out “who they are” in the world. So why do youth mental health advocates focus vaguely on resiliency? When discussing the lives of young people of color, White allies need to be cautious of not placing too much emphasis on increasing youth’s resilience to things like racial trauma without also focusing on decreasing racism that youth face. In Iowa, youth allies cannot change federal immigration law, however, they can still focus on changing the conditions that affect the mental health of Latinx youth and youth of color.

The full report Al Éxito Mental Health Study: Experience of Latinx Youth In Iowa can be read at www.alexitoiowa.org. The study was funding by the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation.

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