Trauma and Immigration: A Humanitarian Crisis

What We Know

We know that individuals, families and children seeking sanctuary are being held in detention centers that have deteriorated to the point of resembling concentration camps where people continue to experience filthy living conditions, lack of proper care, food insecurity, physical, and emotional maltreatment. If they came with family, they have been separated.

We know that these types of separations (disrupted attachment) manifest in overwhelming fear and panic at the time of separation, and that the majority of these children’s behavioral, psychological, interpersonal, and cognitive trajectories will also be affected.

We know that within the migrant populations, there are higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms for children under the age of 18. And even higher levels of symptoms for children under the age of 18, who have experienced family separation.

We know that people have died. We know that children must be afraid and confused.

We know that multiple statements and letters advocating for basic human rights and the reunification of families have been written by hundreds of professional, lay groups/organizations and government organizations associated with development, safety, prevention, health, wellness, humanity, justice, and compassion.

We know that the ability to self-regulate; to understand our own emotions, thoughts and behaviors and effectively interact with the world around us is dependent upon our exposure to events that create unstable attachment and/or trauma responses. In other words, emotionally, we tend to become stuck at the age we first experienced an event that we perceived as a trauma ( an event that elicits psychological distress).

We know that there are some similarities in certain types of psychological distress and that people who exhibit symptoms of psychological distress, experience it in their own individual and unique way. In other words, children, youth, men, women, and people from a variety of cultures will have both shared and individual experiences.

We know that feelings of safety and security have a profound impact upon our well-being, our ability to manage adversity and behave in pro-social ways. In my practice, establishing consistent feelings of safety and security are essential components of healing.

A great deal of human suffering psychological distress is preventable.

We can do better.

These Factors Affect Our Wellness

Resiliency - the ability to either adapt to or recover from difficulty quickly. 

Epigenetics - the name for the process of our genes being turned off or on due to the environment around us. ( this is part of the reason you can have kids grow up in the same home, experiencing the same things and turning out completely different. Once a certain gene is altered, it would seem that this would be the genetic makeup we would pass on, if we were to have children after that point.) 

Protective Factors - things that help prevent problems. Resiliency is one of many protective factors. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) - there are 10 basic experiences that we know have a detrimental effect on a child’s trajectory over the lifespan. The more of these experiences we have the more likely we are to have issues with violence, victimization, perpetration, mental /physical health, and even our opportunities.   

 Attachment Theory -   physical and emotional attachment to at least one primary caregiver is crucial to human development. (There are different styles of attachment based upon our early interactions. The style we experienced affects the way in which we manage ourselves and challenges we face. Difficulties in attachment are believed by many to be the root cause of addiction, and contributes to poor social outcomes. We need someone teaching us that we are okay, that we can self sooth, that we are capable of navigating the world, and that we have support. ).

 Bystander Effect - psycho-social phenomenon that reduces helping behaviors when there are other people around. (There are multiple theories for this very real occurrence. Taking into account everything we’ve just discussed, it’s probably more complicated than initially believed).

What We Can Expect

We can expect both adults and kids who have been separated from their families to have issues of anxiety, depression, difficulty with trust and  more complex presentations of (PTSD). This is also true for those who have been detained in substandard conditions for extensive periods.

While deportation is not new, increased feelings of fear, anxiety, panic, depression, and hyper-vigilance (constantly on alert) can also be expected within the immigrant population as news of ICE raids and deportation continue to generate. Not just for criminal elements but, potentially for all.

We can expect to see adults and children avoiding thinking about their experiences (which can make it more challenging to help), having difficulty regulating and or even understanding their feelings and behaviors, which may manifest as difficulty with rage, fear, shame, substance abuse and/or self-injury. They may also experience difficulty with trust, forming relationships, concentrating, learning problems, difficulty with sleep, dissociation, and low self-esteem.

 Some may be clingy, fearful of new situations, frightened and difficult to console, while others may display problems with aggression and impulsivity, which can often be confused for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They may be disconnected from their feelings. Some may express physical discomfort like stomach aches or headaches instead of identifying feelings that have been internalized. 

Often times, kids will tend to appear more like little men and women, because they've had many adult responsibilities from a young age and they have the goals of adults — to work and support their families. They have faced life-and-death situations or adult responsibilities, such as finding food and shelter for themselves and family members. 

They have faced many hardships and will face many more. If they do stay here, and go to school, they may feel it is irrelevant. They may not fit the social/emotional constructs of their same aged peers. If they have access to mental health services, those services may not be able to meet their needs. In many cultures, treating mental health just as we would any other type of illness is stigmatized. they may speak a language other than English and their culture may navigate the world in a completely different manner. They came a better life.

How will they ever feel safe and secure?

How will they ever be able to trust anyone? 

We can’t keep bad things from happening to people. But, we can prevent ourselves from doing bad things and allowing bad things to happen to other people. 

We can do better.

Resources for Immigration:

Call To Action (clickable link)

 Resources for Raising Healthy Adults: