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New Immigrants Mentally Healthier


by Thomas H. Maugh II and Patrick J. McDonnell Los Angeles Times (September 15, 1998 Sacramento Bee)

America may be the Land of Opportunity, but the assimilation of its cultural values:

1. fast food
2. lack of exercise
3. drug abuse
4. hospital care
5. and the breakdown of the extended family)

may be hazardous to one's health.

Psychological disorders (e.g., depression) and physical disorders (e.g., obesity, heart disease, and cancer) increase the longer one lives in America.

Significantly, a new study shows, children of immigrant families are at least as healthy as U.S.-born childrenemdash;despite the fact that immigrants are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have health insurance or regular medical care.

But their health tends to deteriorate the longer they remain in the United States and embrace U.S. life. Over time, immigrant children tend to eschew the factors that produce good healthemdash;insulating family structures, healthy diets, and socially enforced safe behavior.

In a finding that challenges some long-held psychological tenets, a new study shows that recent Mexican immigrants to the United States have only about half as many psychiatric disorders as U.S.-born Mexican Americans.

Psychologists have long cited the damaging psychological effects of migration and the positive benefits of acculturation, commonly called Americanization.

But the study of 3,012 Fresno County residents, ages 18 to 59, of Mexican origin found that the life-time prevalence of mental disorders was 48.1 percent among U.S.-born Mexican Americans, about the same incidence found among the entire U.S. population.

In contrast, it found a lifetime prevalence of such disorders of only 24.9 percent among recent immigrants, about the same prevalence that previous studies have found in Mexico City.

The longer immigrants had been in the United States, the higher their prevalence of mental disorders, said William Vega, a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the new study. Among immigrants [who had lived] in the United States for less than 13 years, for example, 3.2 percent had suffered major depressions, compared with 7.9 percent of those [who had lived] in the United States longer than 13 years. Among the first generation born in this country, 14.4 percent had such symptoms.

The new study, reported today in the Archives of General Psychiatry, is the latest in a series of studies suggesting that immigrants who come to the United States to better themselves do so only at the risk of increased health problems among themselves or their children.

Fast food, poor diets, lack of exercise and, especially, drug abuse and the breakdown of the extended family lead to a much higher risk of psychiatric disorders, obesity, heart disease and cancer among immigrants who remain in this country for many years or who were born here, according to such studies.

The psychiatric problems observed are "clearly a social effect, not a biological one," said Vega. 'Mexicans come to this country with some kind of natural protection against mental disorder, and that breaks down very quickly in American society.' In addition to the loss of family structure among immigrants, greater exposure to drug abuse plays a major role in the higher health risks.

'Drug abuse itself is a psychiatric disorder,' Vega noted. 'Half the people with mental disorders (in the study) had co-occurring drug or alcohol abuse. Psychiatric disorders often lead to drug abuse as a coping mechanism.'

The increased risk appears to result 'from a combination of things, but primarily the emphasis on social networks and families, social support and nurturance' in Mexico, Vega said. 'That becomes eroded with time in the United States.'

'This is the land of opportunity, but it's not good for children,' said Jose Garcia, 38, a day laborer from Mexico interviewed outside a Los Angeles hardware store.

Garcia said he deliberately left his five children, ages 5 to 15, behind as he worked in the north and sent money back to them.

But, he added, his mental health has suffered as he struggled to make ends meet and save some extra money to send home. Stresses multiplied, he said, because he is an illegal immigrant, ever apprehensive about the possibility of deportation.

The new study comes less than a week after the release of a report on the overall health of children of immigrant families by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine that reached similar conclusions.

The panel's 314-page study found that children in immigrant families are at least as healthy as U.S.-born childrenemdash;despite the fact that immigrants are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have health insurance or regular medical care.

But the health of such children tends to deteriorate the longer they remain in the United States and embrace U.S. life.

Over time, the report suggested, many immigrant children tend to eschew the very factors that produced good healthemdash;insulating family structures, comparatively healthy diets, socially enforced safe behavior. Many veer toward more risky American lifestyles.

By the third generation, the study, said, rates of adolescent-risk behavioremdash;such as violence, illicit drug use and unprotected sexemdash;approach or exceed those of peers with U.S.-born parents.