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How Discriminatory Policies Harm Latinos’ Mental Health

Living in a state with exclusionary immigration policies makes life difficult for immigrants, and can lead to anxiety and depression.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Mental-health issues such as anxiety and depression can have many causes. Newly published research identifies one that we don’t usually think about: government policy.

According to a new study, American Latinos living in states with more exclusionary immigration policies report higher rates of psychological distress than their counterparts in states with more liberal laws.

Obviously, “not all immigrants are Latinos, nor are all Latinos immigrants,” a research team led by Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University writes in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

But “immigrant families regularly include individuals with a range of immigration statuses, and there is evidence that the stigma directed towards undocumented immigrants, as reflected in exclusionary policies, may create suffering among a broader group.”

Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues began by creating a “policy climate index” covering 31 states, all of which have large, or rapidly growing, Latino populations.

They specifically considered policies enacted through legislation that related to immigration, race/ethnicity, language, and agricultural worker protection. One example: They looked at whether a state allowed in-state college tuition for undocumented students.

They then looked at the mental health of residents of each state, as determined by the 2012 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. As part of the survey, 300,000 American adults were asked: “Thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?”

The key result: “Latinos in states with more exclusionary policies had 1.14 times the rate of poor mental health days than Latinos in states with less exclusionary policies.”

Additional analysis found these results were “specific to immigration policies, and not indicators of state political climate or residential segregation.” They also held true after controlling for various risk factors for mental-health issues, including age, education, and income.

In addition, the researchers found “a strong relationship between state-level public opinion toward immigration and psychological distress among Latinos.” All those suspicious looks and derisive remarks take a mental-health toll.

The researchers conclude that laws and policies that target immigrants “create pernicious climates for all Latinos.” Given that we are facing, in their words, “a new presidency with a starkly different view about immigrants,” this problem is only likely to grow larger in the coming year.