TACOMA, Washington — Family separations at the U.S. southern border has led to a mental health emergency among the children who face this inhumane practice. In navigating this crisis the message is clear: families should stay together. If not the effects could be detrimental leading to childhood trauma from family separations.
In 2018, President Trump implemented his Zero Tolerance immigration policy, which sought harsher restrictions against undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The result has been the horrific violation of human rights by separating families. Although Trump ended this practice when he signed an executive order in June 2018, family separations have continued. Based on a February 2020 report, an additional 1,142 children have been separated from their parents since the policy’s end.
The Effect of Past Traumas
Children arriving at the U.S. border often suffer from past traumas. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) conducted a study examining the mental health of children who were seeking asylum in the United States. PHR found that 76% of children “were suspected or diagnosed to have at least one major mental health diagnosis”.
These mental health struggles are directly tied to the traumas that often lead families to flee their home country, including threats of gang violence and domestic abuse. PHR found that 78% of the children sampled had experienced physical violence and 18% had suffered sexual violence.
The journey to the border is, in itself, no small feat. PHR reported that a lack of basic supplies, including food and water, was the reality for many children traveling to the border. In addition to reports of “being abused, threatened and assaulted by smugglers or other migrants during their journey”.
When combined with these past experiences, childhood trauma from family separations is especially harmful. As described by Knowable Magazine: “When parents are present, they can often help buffer the impact of extreme adversity from bad experiences.”
Inside Detention Facilities
Detention facilities at the border do not provide proper care or sanitation for the children placed there. After visiting a detention center, The Human Rights Watch reported that the children there lack “regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes or proper beds.” Kids are left with concrete floors instead of beds. Meals are unhealthy and unsustainable.
Perhaps most horrifying is the reported “no-hugging” policy within detention centers, which not only stops workers from comforting children but also prevents the children from touching each other. This means that siblings recently separated from their parents cannot share a hug.
Human touch is essential, especially for young children experiencing intense anxiety. A hug can lower levels of cortisol: a stress hormone. Denying children the emotional comfort they need from human touch is cruel and dangerous as high levels of cortisol can lead to future health problems.
Long-term Impacts of Trauma
Childhood trauma from family separations can have long-term consequences. Prolonged exposure to high amounts of stress can affect child development, including brain functions responsible for learning and memory. When continually released over an extended period of time, the stress hormone cortisol can damage the immune system. This is in addition to causing “contributions to metabolic syndrome, bone mineral loss and muscle atrophy”.
Along with physical health issues, trauma can affect a child’s development including an ability to reach certain learning milestones. Childhood trauma from family separations also leaves children with an understanding of how vulnerable they are to forces outside of their control, which may limit their ability to trust others and be emotionally vulnerable.
At different ages, childhood trauma from family separations can present itself in new ways. Teens “may be more likely to experiment with drugs and other substances, drop out of school, have anxiety disorders or eating disorders and engage in other high risk-taking behaviors”. These individuals are also at high risk of developing mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
How to Help
Fortunately, family separations have been met with public outcry and organizations are taking steps to help. One group that provides mental health resources for those affected by family separations is El Futuro. The organization, based in North Carolina, is a place in which “Spanish-speaking immigrants can access culturally-responsive mental health services.” Of El Futuro’s clients, some 54% of them were unaccompanied minors when they came to the United States, including many who faced the trauma of family separation. Such services are vital in order to help individuals with childhood trauma from family separations.
However, the best way to combat these issues is to do everything possible to keep families together. This means advocating for the Keep Families Together Act and the Family Reunification Act. It is also important to elect congressional leaders who oppose family separations. Fighting for the mental well-being of these children means deconstructing the politics that landed them in cages in the first place.
– Jessica Blatt