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Mental Health Experts Warn About Impacts New Regulations Could Have On Migrant Children


Physicians and mental health experts have argued against the detention of migrant children, as we've heard. They say longer periods of detention could have a devastating impact on children's mental health. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has more.

RHITUPARNA CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Back in 2018, Sarah MacLean spent two months interviewing more than 400 mothers at a detention center about the mental health of their children. MacLean is a medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

SARAH MACLEAN: Overall, we found high rates of emotional distress in these children.

CHATTERJEE: She says they showed symptoms like...

MACLEAN: Wanting to cry all the time, wanting to be with your mom, conduct problems such as fighting with other kids or having temper tantrums, peer problems so not having a lot of friends or only wanting to interact with adults.

CHATTERJEE: These symptoms were far more common in the children who were recently reunited with their mothers after being forcibly separated from them once they crossed the U.S. border. MacLean also directly interviewed 150 kids aged 9 to 17 about whether they were experiencing symptoms of PTSD - symptoms like...

MACLEAN: Having flashbacks of trauma or nightmares about the trauma, also having negative alterations in their mood; so feeling depressed or sad.

CHATTERJEE: She found that 17% of the kids had symptoms of PTSD and would likely be diagnosed with the disorder if they saw a psychiatrist. MacLean and her colleagues' findings confirm what's been shown by researchers in other countries. Kristen Torres directs child welfare and immigration at First Focus on Children, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

KRISTEN TORRES: Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that children in detention facilities are 10 times more likely than adults to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders and that those rates increase the longer a child is held in detention.

CHATTERJEE: And these effects aren't buffered as well by the presence of a parent because they too are stressed out and depressed in detention. Luis Zayas is the dean of social work at the University of Texas at Austin and has conducted psychological evaluations of children and parents in detention.

LUIS ZAYAS: Parents who are under the stress of detention not only transmit that stress and anxiety and depression to their children, but their roles as parents are upended.

CHATTERJEE: Their authority is undercut, and they can't comfort their children as well. Moreover, Zayas says most of these children have already been through a lot of trauma from poverty and violence in their home countries to violence and other hardship on their way to the U.S.

ZAYAS: And now we're adding additional adversity by keeping them in detention.

CHATTERJEE: Research shows that chronic stress and trauma can hurt brain development in children.

ZAYAS: It affects regions of the brain and functions that have to do with cognition and intellectual processes with judgment, self-regulation, social skills.

CHATTERJEE: And the longer they are held in detention, he says, the more likely that it will have a lasting impact on their mental health and development.

ZAYAS: And it really troubles me that there will be thousands and thousands of children who will be scarred for life.

CHATTERJEE: He says some of these kids might bounce back after their release from detention. But many, he says, will need long-term mental health care to recover from their traumas.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.