Jan. 30 2020

Study Examines Mental Health Challenges of Migration

In a recent presentation, physician-scientists Manuela Orjuela-Grimm and Roberto Lewis-Fernández spoke about their research on the health risks of Latinx teens who migrate to New York City traveling without their parents.

Speaking in the spring semester’s first talk in the University Seminar Series on Global Mental Health, Orjuela-Grimm, who is an assistant professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said the study is designed to examine risk factors for later chronic disease in youth who have migrated as teenagers without their parents. Study assessments include screening for risk for  PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Adolescence is a moment of great vulnerability, particularly for migrants, and negative experiences can have lasting impacts, she said. Thankfully, negative experiences don’t always lead to mental health problems. Preliminary results from this mixed-methods study suggest that some adolescent migrants are extremely resilient, and factors such as having good friends or playing sports may help their mental health.

As part of a pilot study called “CAMINANDO ”— Spanish for walking—researchers have surveyed adolescents ages 14 to 21 on their experiences and health risks. These adolescents originate primarily from Mexico and Northern Central America and speak Spanish and other local languages. Many of the young people were marginalized and faced discrimination in their countries of origin. The youths traveled vast distances and eventually arrived in New York City, where they currently reside. This population has traditionally been difficult to reach due to institutional mistrust,  and the fact that they are often on the move. To overcome these challenges, researchers worked with community organizations in  New York to recruit adolescents to the study and build trust within the population.

Interview materials were challenging to create because they needed to be teen-friendly, accommodating youth coming from several countries, with variable levels of educational attainment and literacy. In part, these difficulties illustrate why there is less research available on adolescent immigrant health.

An audience member raised a question about the “healthy immigrant effect”— that is, people who are able to successfully surmount challenges to migrate to another country may inherently be more resilient and have better outcomes than those who stay behind. This phenomenon might suggest that the health outcomes of the adolescents who successfully migrated might be better than people who returned home or never left. To address this question, the audience member suggested that the researchers could also look at the health outcomes of a group of people who stayed in their home country for comparison.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to understand how experiences before, during, and after migration may affect these teenagers’ health. Going forward, Orjuela-Grimm and Lewis-Fernández, a Columbia professor of psychiatry, hope to develop a larger study to examine the repercussions of traumatic experiences on long-term health. Using the results from their current pilot, they plan to adapt and develop a tool to measure community resources and to better understand the coping mechanisms of these youth. Ultimately, the use of such an instrument could provide data to help inform community policies and strategies to maximize resilience among this growing population.