Lingering trauma: Families separated at border suffer long-term mental health challenges

BALTIMORE — A father cried uncontrollably during group therapy, recounting how tired he was from the journey of migrating into the United States, from walking, from running, from hiding. He said he felt fear, failure and depression.

“Immigration (officials) took (his son) away from him when he was sleeping,” said Oscar Mejia, a clinical mental health counselor at Hope Health Systems in Baltimore. “That is a desperate feeling, that is a feeling of guilt, because ‘I wanted to protect my child and now I am powerless.’”

Other parents in the group shared their own stories of traveling across the border with their children. “I wanted my child to be able to have a better life,” was a common theme. They all wanted stability, food, housing and education for their kids.

Lilian, photographed at her residence in Baltimore, looks on as her daughter peeks out her bedroom window. (Photo by Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Experiencing the trauma of separation was not part of that better life.

Doctors say the trauma resulting from family separations can take a toll on children and parents and lead to long-term psychological effects, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. A 2019 report from the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights asserted that family separation “rises to the level of torture.”

“When I hear these kids talking about those cold rooms where they are placed, this is a form of punishment,” Mejia said. “It is a torture that disfigures the image of a human being that takes away for many children the motivation and trust and desire to continue trying in this life.”

Seneca Family of Agencies, a mental health nonprofit, is leading a nationwide effort to connect migrant families who were held in detention or forcibly separated at the border.

Mejia, who works at one of more than 230 such providers nationwide, has helped two immigrant parents referred by Seneca. Since being awarded a $14 million contract in March, Seneca has worked with 592 migrant families, out of about 2,500 across the United States who are eligible for services.

But COVID-19 has created obstacles to outreach efforts, and Seneca’s free care for children and guardians is set to expire in July. More than three years after the Trump administration began to separate families at the border, immigrant advocates are still trying to track down 628 missing parents.

In the greater Baltimore region, 55 families are receiving free, confidential services conducted in their preferred language.

They include children and parents who had been in detention or experienced family separation. A majority are from Latin America, with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador being the most represented countries.

Fear, guilt lead to long-term disorders

Lilian descends the staircase at her residence in Baltimore. (Photo by Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Mejia has previous experience helping unaccompanied minors heal from the trauma of migrating alone or being separated from relatives at the border.

“The fear-related, the guilt-related, the sadness related to that separation turns into a post-traumatic stress disorder and to the more severe cases of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts,” he said.

Due to the family separation policy, Lilian from Honduras was apart from her 5-year-old daughter when crossing the U.S. border in 2018. More than a week went by before Lilian was allowed a phone call that lasted two minutes; her daughter was being held in Brownsville, Texas at Casa Padre, a former Walmart converted into a shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children, the largest such facility in the U.S. They were reunited two months later.

Her daughter was afraid of everyone and would scream when she saw an official or police officer. Since relocating to Baltimore, Lilian has been in therapy for the past five months while her daughter has had therapy for the past year. The mother needed to speak to someone to find some peace through the trauma she experienced.

“Your inner self has that opportunity to express and say what you think,” Lilian said. “You think about what you’ve been carrying, because we all have stress, we all have problems, but we learn to adjust to everything that weighs on us.”

Mejia also has seen a high number of cases of detachment disorder and depersonalization among children. Mejia noted that symptoms range from irritability to angry outbursts, lack of positive emotions, nightmares and problems with concentration.

Stigma reduces requests for care

The intersection of mental health and immigration is rarely discussed. Stigma, lack of access to care and language barriers contribute to the disparity in mental health care. Only 33% of Latinos with a mental illness receive treatment compared to the U.S. average of 43%, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Stigma and negative perceptions of mental health illness keep members of these communities from speaking about their problems and getting professional care. Lilian said talking about negative feelings is not a common part of Latino culture.

Lilian’s advice for migrants who need mental health support and are fighting to adapt to life in a new country, is to see a psychologist.

“People think it’s because you’re crazy or because you’re sick,” Lilian said. “But no, you really need to talk, you need to release what you have suffered, so you can feel clean, and feel good inside.”

Stephanie Garcia covers issues relevant to Latinx communities for The Baltimore Sun. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @hagiastephia.

A version of this story appeared on USA TODAY on JANUARY 28, 2021