Immigrants Looking for American Dream Find Depression and Anxiety

The backlash against immigration had led to a significant increase in the number of Spanish speakers seeking mental health treatment. But providers say there are far too few resources to help all the people reaching out for help.  Failed immigration reform and harsher local laws are inspiring depression and anxiety in immigrants, but treatment is hard to come by, mental heath providers say.

“Millions of people were hoping to get legal status and with it some stability in this country, but what they got was quite the opposite – anti-immigrant laws and ICE raids,” said Frank Clavijo, an immigrant from Peru who is now a Denver-based psychologist who counsels Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Fear has come to define life in immigrant communities, and mental health providers like Clavijo have noticed a corresponding jump in the number of people seeking treatment for chronic depression and anxiety.

“The raids have taken the issues all immigrants face – isolation, insecurity, economic fears – and heightened them by 200 percent,” said Jayne Mazur, executive director of Catholic Charities of Pueblo.

Last summer, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement quietly descended on that southern Colorado city, armed with a list of 15 names and addresses. In a four-day sting operation, agents went house to house, arresting their targets in predawn raids. All were later deported, Mazur said.

“Now people are afraid to send their kids to school, afraid to go to church, afraid to drive to work,” she said. “All that fear greatly exacerbates feelings of depression and anxiety.”

Catholic Charities of Pueblo first began offering mental health services to immigrants about seven years ago. There was a great need then, Mazur said, but in recent months, the trickle of immigrants seeking treatment for depression through her organization has turned into a flood. The only bilingual therapist on staff is overwhelmed, and people keep coming through the door.

Gabriela Carreras, 40, came to Colorado nearly 20 years ago from Jalisco, Mexico. Her five children are citizens, but she is not. Carreras said she has struggled with bouts of depression throughout her life – like most people, she figured. But these days she can’t seem to shake the heaviness in her chest and a persistent sense of indifference.

“It’s hard to explain, but I have lost the urge to be pretty – I don’t feel like bathing, or getting dressed or doing my hair or putting on makeup. I just lost the energy for all that,” said Carreras, who would like to see a therapist but doesn’t have health insurance and can’t afford a fee. “I think if I were alone, I’d be in trouble. But my kids are my motor. I get out of bed for them.”

The need may be great, but bilingual, culturally relevant therapy at a price most immigrants can afford is difficult to find. Clavijo said he is one of only a handful of psychologists in the area who share the language and cultural heritage of Hispanic immigrants.

Mazur contends that none of the drug treatment centers in the state has a bilingual staff. A call to the 211 information service of Mile High United Way yielded not one resource for Spanish speakers seeking treatment for depression.

At Clinica Tepeyac, a clinic in north Denver that specializes in caring for the poor and uninsured, the volunteer therapists, all of whom must use interpreters to communicate with patients, are always busy.

“We certainly don’t have all the therapy slots we need,” said Mary Martin, volunteer coordinator at the Clinica. “The need is greater than the services we provide. Often I have to turn people away or schedule them way out in the future.”

Clavijo is well aware of the shortage of resources, so he tries to reach as many people as possible through his private practice and in group sessions.

“I offer brief treatment. My patients don’t have the luxury of long-term care,” he said. “They come in. I assess their needs. I try to identify the cause of their depression and give them tips on how they can manage those intense negative feelings.”

Caroline Constantine, a psychotherapist at Clinica Tepeyac, said her clients voice practical worries about work and money, and their stress is compounded by the sense they have been rejected by American society.

“It’s certainly difficult living in a culture where there is that term `illegal.’ One patient told me it makes her feel like a nobody,” she said. “There are lots of those feelings among people when they live in a society that doesn’t recognize them.”

Clavijo, who has written several articles about depression among Hispanic immigrants, said the symptoms of depression among immigrants vary from chronic sadness to unexplainable physical infirmities. But the causes are almost always the same: feelings of loneliness and isolation; the sense of economic failure or a lack of job possibilities; the fear that comes with debt or legal status; the sense that one must fight to survive. 

“The expectations people have before coming are often totally different from the reality they find here,” he said. “You could be here years and years living in misery that is as bad or worse than what you left behind.”


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