Today's political climate makes it difficult to have a rational discussion about immigration-and that makes it challenging to ensure immigrants have access to basic health care, said U.S. Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), at an APA 2007 Annual Convention session on the psychological implications of immigration.
"[Immigrants] are living in fear and without the kind of access they need to mental health services for their families," Schakowsky said.
Immigrants make up almost 12 percent of the U.S. population, noted speaker Margarita Alegria, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. One problem, she said, is the media's portrayal that immigration is a problem to be solved, which distorts the value immigrants can have in society.
Another difficulty is the idea that immigrants need to assimilate American cultural norms in order to be "complete" Americans. In fact, she said, the more immigrants assimilate the more likely they are aware of discrimination against them, which can be linked to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders and increased substance abuse.
"The longer you're here, the more aware you become that people may be discriminating against you or treating you wrongly," Alegria said.
Immigrants also must deal with commonly held negative images, she noted. Alegria pointed to a study in which children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds associated white characters with having money, education, leadership skills and intelligence. Minority characters were associated with being poor, lazy lawbreakers. Such stereotypes undermine immigrant children's self-image, Alegria said.
Compounding these problems, immigrants are also less likely to have access to mental health care than the rest of the population. And even when they do, it's unlikely they'll find a provider who speaks their language, Alegria said. Immigrant children in school are less likely to receive needed services. Because many schools lack the resources to address these children's needs, it's either special education or almost no remediation services at all, she noted.
Psychologists can help immigrant families by making them aware of the resources available to them and teaching them what questions to ask of their providers, Alegria said. Also, psychologists should take an active role in educating people about the importance of immigrants' retaining some of their cultural norms and lifestyles as a way to maintain their well-being.