Mexican Immigrants’ Resiliency Leads to Better Mental Health

Last Updated on May 9, 2014 at 1:23 pm

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned expert on mental health in ethnic populations, was the keynote speaker at UTEP's first Centennial Symposium on Resiliency and Hispanic Mental Health. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned expert on mental health in ethnic populations, was the keynote speaker at UTEP’s first Centennial Symposium on Resiliency and Hispanic Mental Health. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Research shows that Mexican immigrants in the United States are less likely to suffer from depression and other mental health disorders than people who were born in this country, said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned expert on mental health in ethnic populations.

Aguilar-Gaxiola was the keynote speaker at the Centennial Symposium on Resiliency and Hispanic Mental Health at UTEP on Jan. 28. Nearly 200 mental health professionals, social workers and UTEP faculty, staff and students attended the conference in UTEP’s Tomás Rivera Conference Center, where mental health experts discussed how Hispanics use resiliency to cope with life’s challenges and stressful situations.

According to the panel of experts, family, traditional values, culture, community and faith are some of the factors protecting immigrants against mental illness.

“People who were born outside the U.S. tend to have a better mental health status than their U.S.-born counterparts,” said Aguilar-Gaxiola, the director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities and a professor of medicine at The University of California at Davis.

“They are poor, they have a very low income, marginal occupations, unstable occupations, and yet they have a better mental health,” he said, calling the concept the “immigrant paradox.”

Organized by UTEP’s College of Health Sciences’ Department of Social Work and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, the symposium focused on the strengths of Hispanics in building mental health and wellness, instead of the risk factors and deficits impeding their well-being.

Mark Lusk, Ed.D., helped coordinate the event. A professor of social work at UTEP, Lusk previously conducted a study on depression and trauma suffered by refugees who fled the drug war in Mexico.

While the majority of the study’s participants suffered from clinical depression and anxiety associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Lusk was surprised to find most of the participants refused to be seen as victims, and instead showed great resiliency in moving forward with their lives.

“There’s so much writing about people who come in who are immigrants and how much hardship they go through,” Lusk told the audience. “Let’s change the paradigm to look at how resilient these people are and how much value they bring to our communities. Let’s try to explore what it is that they are doing that is so successful so that we can weave that into our intervention strategies and our public health education strategies to take advantage of this.”

Statistics presented by Aguilar-Gaxiola revealed only about 30 percent of Latinos living in the United States suffer from a lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders, compared to 43 percent of Caucasians. Furthermore, 25 percent of Latino immigrants in the United States have a lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders, while prevalence in Latinos born in the U.S. is 37 percent.

However, as immigrants become more acculturated in the United States, the protective social and cultural factors they brought from their home countries tend to decrease. For Mexican immigrants, their mental health status begins to decline after they’ve been living in the U.S. more than 13 years, Aguilar-Gaxiola said.

“The cultural values and protective health behaviors and resiliency that immigrants bring need to be identified, reinforced and promoted,” he said. “These assets can serve as role models for other disadvantaged populations.”

Other symposium speakers included Edward Castañeda, Ph.D., professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of Psychology; Arthur Islas, M.D., associate professor, and Amelia Leony-Carrete, faculty associate, both from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine; and Margie Rodriguez-Lesage, a former professor at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work and the UTEP Department of Social Work.

Castañeda talked about the neurological basis of resiliency by focusing on dopamine neurotransmission and how dopamine affects drug addiction.

Castañeda is the primary investigator of UTEP’s Vulnerability Issues in Drug Abuse (VIDA) Project. He said addiction is a biomedical disease affecting the part of the brain responsible for motor habits, goal identification and selection, decision-making and impulsivity, and assessment of consequences and awareness of ethics.

Rodriguez-Lesage told the real story of “Tachita,” a Latina in El Paso who typified resilience across her lifetime.

Tachita was kidnapped from Mexico and brought to the United States when she was 13 years old. By age 31, her husband had died and she had 10 children to support. Tachita couldn’t read or write, but she could count and cook. She turned her home in central El Paso into a successful restaurant where she served breakfast and lunch. Most of her clients were judges and lawyers.

Despite her hardships, Tachita was able to successfully adapt to her circumstances. She knew she was central to her family’s well-being and she had to use whatever resources were at her disposal to survive. Tachita died at age 95. She has more than 500 relatives.

“Look at this prototype of resilience and apply her into your life and try to think of other women that might be like her,” Rodriguez-Lesage said. “Try to examine some of the strengths that she lived and passed on, then help us consider how we can make services, not just treatments, but protective services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate.”

Islas, a sports medicine doctor, said that mental health services along the U.S.-Mexico border can be improved if providers begin to take a multidisciplinary approach involving not only physicians but also social workers.

However, he said a lack of healthcare providers makes it difficult to bring mental health resources to the people who need it. Instead of recruiting doctors and mental health professionals, Islas suggests “we build our own.”

“That’s why the medical school, the master’s program in social work are so important in this area,” Islas said. “When we talk about resilience, this is our resilience. We recognize the problem and we build infrastructure to help us address the problem. Hopefully through the efforts of UTEP and the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and all of our community partners, we can actually begin to address the issue in a more cohesive and multidisciplinary approach.”

The Symposium on Resiliency and Hispanic Mental Health was the first in a series of events planned by the College of Health Sciences to celebrate UTEP’s 100th anniversary.


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