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by Lisa Reticker, LCSW

Last month I joined more than 150 clinicians, academics, officials, and other service providers at SUNY New Paltz for the VIII International Congress on Migration and Mental Health. Participants came from around the world to explore ways to address mental health challenges faced by immigrants including assessment techniques, intervention, research, and innovative methodology.

Many immigrants experience “migratory mourning” — mental and emotional suffering felt after leaving one’s homeland and trying to adjust to a new country. Common reactions include depression, toxic stress, low self-esteem, isolation, pessimism, sleep disorders, and anxiety.

In addition, attachments between parents and children may be interrupted or even destroyed by migration, a problem worsened by current U.S. policies that may separate families. According to PBS’s Frontline and the AP, government data released early this month shows “an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody over the past year….”

We may never know how many children were – or remain – separated from their families since current policies took effect in 2018, but years of research show that these kinds of adverse childhood experiences and traumas have life-long impacts on mental and physical health. Even when families are reunited, the effects of separation may never be reversed completely.

Persistent loss, persistent challenges

Both long-term residents and more recent arrivals must cope with the reality of losing everything that is familiar – extended families, cultures, social status, languages – as they adapt to a new life. Many immigrants face poverty, food insecurity, gang violence, separation, sexual assault, domestic violence, and trafficking or other coercion. These traumas can be magnified by perilous journeys and current anti-immigration policies.

Mental health professionals from the Bronx, Ulster County, Rochester, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, Venezuela, and Mexico provided examples of integrated mental health services and psychosocial care specially designed to address the needs of immigrants. There are currently a number of agencies providing mental health services to immigrants in the Hudson Valley, but the number of Spanish-speaking practitioners and translators working locally remains insufficient. (Find local help in Resources.)

Conference participants came from Kingston High School, the Family Institute, and local mental health practices, as well as the conference’s many sponsors, which included SUNY New Paltz, Rutgers University, World Psychiatric Association, Ulster County Department of Social Services, Catholic Charities/Community Services of Orange, Sullivan, and Ulster; Agri-Business Child Development, Rose Women’s Care Service, Family of Woodstock, and Humanamente.

This was the eighth annual conference organized by the Athena Network, a worldwide association of academics, clinicians, professionals, health policy advocates, immigrant service providers, community-based organizations, students, and others focused on providing psychological and psychosocial support for immigrants, especially those living in extreme situations. Athena Network New York and its founder, Kingston-based Maria Elena Ferrer-Harrington, can be reached at info@athenanetwork.org.

Lisa Reticker is a clinical social worker who lives in Dutchess County. Watch for a future post about mental health services available to immigrants in our region.