Immigrants more depressed than those who stay

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Mexicans who move to the U.S. are significantly more likely to experience depression or anxiety than the people they leave behind, according to new study results.

The authors found that rates of depression or anxiety were more than 40 percent higher among immigrants to the U.S. than among people living in Mexico who are related to immigrants.

The findings aren’t a huge surprise, study author Dr. Joshua Breslau of the University of California, Davis, told Reuters Health.

“Researchers had predicted that immigration would lead to mental health problems for some people, but this prediction had not been tested as directly as we have tested it here,” he said.

And even though Mexican immigrants experience mental illness more often than those who stay behind, they still have lower rates of depression and anxiety than Americans overall, Breslau added.

“Since immigrants have better mental health than the US-born, many wondered why the mental health of immigrants was so good,” he said.

This is a point that’s often lost in the immigration debate, study author Dr. William Vega of the University of Southern California told Reuters Health. People who are against immigration sometimes argue that immigrants will be a burden on the health system, but Mexicans who move to the U.S. are typically much healthier than Americans, with lower rates of heart disease and cancer, for instance, Vega explained.

“In fact, what you’re getting is an extraordinarily healthy population,” said Vega.

Indeed, previous research has found that Mexican immigrants to the United States are half as likely to suffer from psychiatric illness during their lifetime compared with native-born Mexican-Americans.

So the longer they stay in the country, the more their risks equalize to those of other Americans, Vega said. “The new groups coming in are like a barometer,” showing us how health conditions in the U.S. compare to those in other countries.

Recently, the debate over immigration has been heating up. Last year, Arizona lawmakers grabbed headlines after Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a controversial state immigration bill requiring state and local police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspected was in the country illegally.

Last month, the Oklahoma Senate approved a similar bill, which gives police the authority to verify the citizenship status of motorists during legal traffic stops.

Approximately 30 percent of all U.S. immigrants come from Mexico, the authors write in the Archives of General Psychiatry, representing 12 million people.

To investigate what effect migration may have on their mental health, the researchers surveyed 2,519 people living in Mexico with a family member living in the U.S., and 554 immigrants.

Overall, 12 percent of people who stayed in Mexico experienced any type of depression or anxiety, versus more than 17 percent of immigrants.

In contrast, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than 18 percent of the U.S. adult population has suffered from an anxiety disorder within the previous 12 months. Another 7 percent has experienced depression.

Of course, it’s possible that people more at risk of mental illness are more likely to immigrate, the authors note. In one attempt to control for this possibility, Breslau explained, they took into account any pre-existing mental illness, “including disorders that started before people migrated to the


The increased risk of mental illness appeared largely driven by the youngest immigrants, the authors note. Specifically, those who were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of the study were around 4 times more likely to experience anxiety or depression, relative to people who stayed behind.

“This aspect of the findings is least understood,” Breslau said by e-mail. It suggests that younger people may be more “vulnerable” to the elements of U.S. culture that raise Americans’ risk of mental illness, Vega added, while adults who spend more of their adulthood in Mexico may be more protected.

Overall, the findings indicate that trying to “acculturate” immigrants to American values “might not be the best for immigrant groups,” said Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola of the University of California, Davis, also a co-author.

In fact, it makes sense to investigate what elements protect Mexicans and other immigrant populations that Americans appear to lack, he added.

“U.S.-born populations may have something to learn from immigrant cultures, in terms of mental health,” he said.

SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry, April 2011.