Whether you or someone that you care deeply for is undocumented, we want you to know that Loyola supports you. This page outlines the mental health impact that documentation status can have on individuals, both their challenges and triumphs.
Strength and Resilience
Despite the numerous obstacles that undocumented students face, many of them also exhibit profound resilience and perseverance in their academic and personal lives. Experts define resilience as the process of triumphing over the negative effects of certain risk factors. For undocumented students, those risk factors could include:
- Elevated feelings of societal and institutional rejection
- Low parental education
- High employment hours during school (Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, and Cortes)
Resilience is often dependent on the subsistence of protective factors in students’ lives that help them to draw on their own strength and determination. These protections, which can be both personal and environmental, include:
- Student’s belief in her own potential and academic abilities
- Supportive parents, families, and friends
- Encouragement from faculty and staff
- Involvement in extracurricular activities and community service (Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, and Cortes)
Undocumented students who have these protections are more likely to become high academic achievers. Creating a supportive, inclusive, and informed environment at Loyola is thus essential to helping our undocumented students draw on their own strength and resilience in the face of adversity.
Immigration Related Stress
If you are an undocumented/unauthorized student, you are not alone. Approximately 200,000–225,000 undocumented individuals are enrolled in higher education in the U.S., representing about 2% of all college students (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). Difficulties that undocumented students face could include:
- Financial distress
- Having a family that is mixed-status
Many undocumented students experience financial distress when applying for or attending a college or university and their status may limit their access to information and resources regarding financial aid. This financial distress may also affect their academic success if a student has to hold multiple jobs to pay for tuition or even to contribute to the family income. Many undocumented students do not feel comfortable discussing financial matters with university administrators or faculty (Collier & Morgan, 2008).
Discrimination contributes to undocumented students’ reticence. An estimated 67% of undocumented students experienced discrimination in 2015.
In addition to financial distress and discrimination, undocumented students might face the difficulty of having a mixed-status family. A mixed-status family is a family with some members who are undocumented and others who are documented. This phenomenon can increase a student’s anxiety because of the aggressive deportation tactics that have been in place since 9/11 (Kanstroom, 2007). Deportation tears families apart, and a student’s fear of this possibility can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression (Contreras, 2009; Garcia & Tierney, 2011; Perez, 2009; Perry, 2006).
Denice Frohman, “Borders” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNK7Hn5_hLQ
Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health conditions on college campuses across the U.S. (ADAA). Students who are undocumented or have undocumented family members or close friends may be at a higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Studies have shown that the number of undocumented students who have reported experiencing levels of anxiety above the clinical cutoff is significantly higher than that of the general population (Zenin Jaimes Pérez). Students concerned about their own or loved ones’ status may develop high levels of anxiety in response to fears of whom to trust, and feelings of uncertainty, despair, marginalization, and even shame (Pérez, Cortés, Ramos, Coronado).
General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive anxiety or worry that interferes with work, school, and/or social activities. Symptoms of GAD include:
- Restlessness or feeling on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension and aches
- Sleep disturbance (trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or restless sleep) (ADAA)
Undocumented students or especially those with mixed-status families may also experience Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Living with the constant fear that a loved one may be deported and blocked from legal reentry can lead to excessive distress when away from home. SAD is characterized by a constant focus and worry placed on another person or persons. Symptoms of SAD include:
- The desire to constantly check on the whereabouts of loved ones
- Being overly protective of loved ones
- The experience of physical pain in the event of separation
Finally, undocumented students who have experienced a forced separation from loved ones or other distressing situations related to their migration or status may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is diagnosed if an individual experiences symptoms at least one month after a traumatic event, or even several months or years later. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event through distressing recollections, flashbacks, and nightmares
- Emotional numbness
- Avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the traumatic event
- Difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and irritability (ADAA)
Seeking professional help can be difficult for undocumented students or students with undocumented loved ones. Yet it is also difficult to cope with anxiety disorders alone. The first and most important step to managing anxiety is to identify communities of support and trust. Those communities can be as small as your parents or family, or it can include peer groups, faculty, student affairs professionals, and the Counseling Center.
While many people suffer from depression, there are specific experiences shared by undocumented students that may contribute to or exacerbate depressive symptoms. For instance, they may develop feelings of social isolation because of their need to keep secrets about their own or loved ones’ documentation status. This sense of isolation can be compounded by feelings of disconnection from one’s native culture or even family members who were left behind.
In addition to experiencing social isolation, undocumented students may also feel voiceless and invisible in the U.S. because of their status, which can lead to a profound sense of hopelessness.
Some students do not learn about their documentation status until they are entering college. This discovery can lead to potential disappointment and despair regarding their future plans. Finally, many undocumented students also experience feelings of shame and decreased self-worth because of their status.
In sum, symptoms of depression that might be most poignant for undocumented students include:
- Social isolation
- A sense of loss regarding one’s native culture and family members who were left behind
- Voicelessness and invisibility
- Emotional avoidance and displacing negative feelings and experiences onto others
- Feeling that one’s hopes for the future have been shattered (Ellis and Chen, 2013)
Do keep in mind that these feelings often worsen the longer they are kept inside. If you or a loved one are experiencing feelings of depression, it is important to talk to someone that you can trust.
Impact on Relationships
The immigration process, both legal and undocumented, often requires temporary separation from family members. Whether parents travel prior to sending for their children or siblings are separated in the process, the “piecemeal migration” of families has been a long-standing aspect of the immigration experience. This separation can impact the closeness of relationships between family members in both positive and negative ways.
Many undocumented students are part of “mixed-status” families; that is, families that are made up of some individuals who are American citizens or have legal documentation and some who do not. All members of mixed-status families, regardless of their own citizenship status, are impacted by the challenges of being undocumented in the United States. Fear and risk of deportation make it difficult to trust people outside of the familial network. The fear of deportation of undocumented parents of citizen children also restricts access to healthcare and leads to increased experiences of anxiety disorders for their children such as separation anxiety (Zayas, Aguilar-Gaxiola, Yoon, & Rey, 2015). Moreover, researchers have found that citizen children who have experienced a parent’s detention have elevated distress and are more likely to display symptoms of depression, anxiety, behavioral challenges and ADHD (Zayas, Aguilar-Gaxiola, Yoon, & Rey, 2015).
Members of a family may also vary in language fluency. Many children of immigrants become more fluent in the English language than their parents, which may lead those parents to depend on their children when communicating with schools and workplaces and when filling out legal documents. Being aware of their parents’ financial, legal, or medical difficulties can be distressing for young people.
Finally, navigating college applications, financial aid documents, and the academic world may require more self-dependence and reliance for the children of immigrant parents who are unfamiliar with these systems.
Social and Romantic Relationships
Navigating social and romantic relationships as an undocumented individual or a member of a mixed status family has some unique qualities. Fear of deportation and other legal repercussions may lead one to keep secrets from friends and/or significant others in order to protect oneself or someone else. Knowing who or when to trust people can create stress in a relationship and lead to a generalized difficulty trusting others. However, distrust of individuals and systems is helpful and adaptive in many situations as laws for mandated reporters can fluctuate with political administrations.
Researchers have also studied the impact documentation status has on the victimization (i.e. physical violence, sexual assault, witnessed violence, threats of violence or stalking) of female immigrants in romantic relationships. For instance, abusers are known to use undocumented status “as a tool of domination and control.” While reports of interpersonal victimization between Latinas with permanent status and undocumented Latinas did not differ significantly (20% and 15.4%, respectively), rates of help-seeking behaviors did as undocumented Latinas “tended to reach out to formal help-seeking services overall less often than Latinas with permanent status” (Zadnik, Savina & Cuevas, 2016).