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Foreign Nativity May Not Always Protect Against Mental Disorders in the US

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Science Update

Though all Latino immigrants tend to display better overall mental health compared to their US-born counterparts, a recent study by NIMH-funded researchers has found that the protective benefits of foreign nativity vary widely across subgroups of this population. Factors such as neighborhood stability, perceived discrimination, and the strength of family bonds all combine to influence the prevalence of mental disorders across distinctive Latino ethnic groups. The finding reflects varying immigration and acculturation processes experienced by Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups. Results of the study were published in the July 2007 issue of Social Science and Medicine.

The research team, lead by Dr. Margarita Alegria of Harvard University, used information from the National Latino and Asian-American Study (NLAAS) to examine the effect of foreign nativity on the prevalence of mental disorders within Latino immigrant populations. The researchers initially divided the survey population into two groups; Late-Arrival Immigrants (LAI) who arrived in the US after age six and those who arrived in the US before age six (IUSC). The latter group also included Latinos who were born in the United States, as native born and early-arrival immigrants share similar language skills and acculturation experiences. In contrast, late arrival immigrants may have limited English skills and closer connections to traditional customs, family structures, and religious values. Survey participants were further divided based on ethnic background and country of origin.

These divisions allowed researchers to show that nativity is only part of the larger picture when considering susceptibility to various mental disorders. Previous studies of the “immigrant paradox,” which refers to the tendency of children of immigrants to have a higher prevalence of mental disorders than their parents, focused primarily on nativity while overlooking other sources of risk. By dividing the Latino population into subgroups based on country of origin, as well as late (LAI) and early (IUSC) arrival to the US researchers were able to identify other factors, such as familial and cultural ties, income disparities, and perceived social standing, which interact to influence the prevalence of mental disorders.

For example, Mexican LAI immigrants showed lower risk of depressive disorders compared to their IUSC counterparts. However, when family cultural conflict and family burden were taken into account, LAI Mexicans experienced similar levels of risk for depression as IUSC. No differences in risk for anxiety disorders were found for LAI versus IUSC Latinos. Yet, surprisingly, results showed that immigrant families with incomes of $15,000 a year or less seemed to experience lower levels of anxiety disorders than those families who made above $35,000. The researchers proposed that the unexpected protective effect of poverty was likely due to a higher perceived social standing within the low income families. At the same time, lower-income families may have lowered expectations for success compared to their more affluent peers. This may help to limit some of the stress associated with trying to improve social standing and achievement.

The study highlights the need for further investigation of the varying cultural and sociological influences that affect mental health in immigrant populations. Nativity alone may not be as protective as once thought. Rather, family harmony, marital status, and integration in employment may be key factors for decreased risk for depression and anxiety disorders. Including comparisons of immigration arrival across subgroups within an ethnic population in future studies could be a valuable tool in determining additional factors that may increase or decrease the risk for psychiatric disorders in Latino and other immigrant populations.

Reference:

Alegria, M., et al. Understanding differences in past year psychiatric disorders for Latinos living in the US . Social Science & Medicine. 2007 Jul;65(2):214-30.