Understanding the Mental Health Challenges of Undocumented Students

Understanding the Mental Health Challenges of Undocumented Students

By Jesus Cisneros, Ph.D. and Alonso Reyna Rivarola

Published on August 27, 2021

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The stressors associated with undocumented status negatively impact undocumented immigrants' mental health. Many undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. in distress, which is only worsened by the challenges they face once in the country.

Families with undocumented members often live in the shadows. These families experience a lack of safety and fear of removal, even when doing everyday things like going shopping or working. Living in constant fear can result in negative mental health outcomes and maladaptive coping strategies, including hypervigilance and difficulty regulating emotions.

How Does Being Undocumented Impact Mental Health?

Policies that limit undocumented immigrants' access to education, health insurance, food assistance, and economic opportunities may cause these immigrants increased stress. They may also cause undocumented immigrants to distrust public institutions.

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) raids can also accentuate fear of removal. Partnerships between ICE and state and local law enforcement agencies, for example, pose a significant threat to undocumented communities. These communities often face disproportionate policing because of their race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Constant changes to immigration rules like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program can create confusion and increase vulnerability among undocumented immigrants.

The experience and threat of detention, removal, and family separation can be traumatic, leaving families with high levels of distress, depression, insecurity, and anxiety.

Additionally, families who lose an adult to detention may encounter financial hardship. They may experience increased family obligations and fewer job opportunities because of the detention.

Experiences with discrimination, mistreatment, and victimization may also impact undocumented immigrants' mental health. Anti-immigrant sentiment and stigma can lead to subtle and overt acts of racism, discrimination, and profiling. These experiences can cause immigrants fear, anxiety, and isolation. They can also cause immigrants to feel unsafe and question their sense of identity.

Further, some undocumented immigrants may be unable or unwilling to seek help because of their immigration status and possible language barriers.

9 Recommendations for Undocumented Students Managing Mental Health

Unequal access to quality mental health care is a significant problem for undocumented immigrants. Improving access to affordable health care will be necessary to adequately address mental health needs for undocumented immigrants.

However, other community-based interventions are also helpful. Below is a list of recommendations for undocumented students to help manage and prevent mental health challenges:

Find Organizations for Undocumented Immigrants

Undocumented immigrants benefit from spaces where they feel validated and can build social ties with other immigrants. Community organizations can help undocumented immigrants strengthen their sense of identity and develop support networks.

Sample organizations include Immigrants Rising, United We Dream, andInner Work Collective Freedom.

Look for Immigrant-Friendly Services

Identifying immigrant-friendly resources and services can help undocumented students feel more comfortable seeking support. Look for community centers committed to providing culturally and linguistically appropriate services. Signage, such as art and posters, can indicate whether an organization serves the entire community regardless of immigration status.

Get Involved in Activism

Becoming involved in activism and advocacy can be a way for undocumented immigrants to cope with stress and cultivate resilience. Undocumented immigrants can boost their mental health by engaging in work that is meaningful and directly relevant to them. Activism can also increase community connectivity.

Care for Your Community

Being undocumented is a family and community experience. Finding support strategies and community organizations that center the community can help you feel less alone in your undocumented experience.

Engage in Dialogue

Consider meeting with a mental health professional who has experience and training working with undocumented students. Beyond licensed mental health professionals, finding a support group can also help undocumented students manage their mental health.

It is important to acknowledge that mental health is stigmatized across many cultures. It may be helpful to you when thinking about this option or discussing it with others to replace medical terminology such as "therapy" and "counseling" with phrases like "dialogues," "chats," or "real talks."

Establish a Routine

Maintaining a routine can be helpful in times of uncertainty and stress. Implementing a routine that adds structure and predictability to your day can help you feel more organized and less stressed.

Develop Healing Practices

Incorporating healing practices into your life can help you cope. Healing practices can include healing circles, grounding exercises, storytelling, and art. These activities can help undocumented students express their emotions and better contextualize their experiences. Students can engage in healing practices alone and with a group.

Find Trusted Information

Immigration policies and guidelines are constantly changing. Try to find a trusted source for accurate information about immigration. This can help counteract anxiety related to immigration news.

Another news-related strategy is to reframe the information when possible to focus on the impacts to your everyday life. Look for details about what is changing and what is staying the same. For example, will your tuition rate change? When are changes being implemented?

Know Your Rights

Another way to help reduce anxiety is to understand your legal rights and how to report discrimination and abuse. See if you can find free legal information sessions and know-your-rights presentations. When undocumented students understand their rights, they can better advocate for themselves and protect their mental health.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.

Feature Image: Carol Yepes / Moment / Getty Images

Applying for college can be stressful for the parents and family of undocumented students. Read this guide and see how you can help your student succeed. Learn about the concept of hyperdocumentation and how undocumented students navigate belonging, worthiness, and intolerance in college. Learn how to navigate the college environment as a bilingual or ELL student. Use our guide to help develop skills and find resources to succeed.