Why the Horrific Treatment of Children and Families at the Border Is a Recipe for Mental-Health Disaster
“Children depend on their parents to protect them and provide them with security,” explains Tovah Klein, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, who has researched the impact of trauma on young children and families, including those who witnessed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. “When they’re ripped away, which is literally what’s happening, the separation is traumatic. [The children] don’t speak English, for the most part, they don’t know where they are or where their parents are, and it leaves them in a state of toxic stress.”
"We now know that childhood trauma is correlated with disrupted neurological development, chronic disease, substance abuse, and general cognitive, social, and emotional impairments." —Alison Stone, psychotherapist
Over the past few days, several major health organizations—including the American Medical Association (AMA), American Psychiatric Association (APA), and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—have released statements warning of the potentially devastating effects that can occur when children and parents are abruptly split from one another. "Children living without their parents face immediate and long-term health consequences," the American Public Health Association's statement reads. "Risks include the acute mental trauma of separation, the loss of critical health information that only parents would know about their children’s health status, and in the case of breastfeeding children, the significant loss of maternal child bonding essential for normal development."
"Separation from primary caregivers at a young age dramatically affects brain development and increases the likelihood of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a variety of other mental health conditions," says psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW. Fleeing one's country is highly traumatic in and of itself, she notes—and this only intensifies the negative outcomes these children are likely to experience in both the short and long term. "We now know that childhood trauma is correlated with disrupted neurological development, chronic disease, substance abuse, and general cognitive, social, and emotional impairments. So the impact of this is just devastating." The younger the child, she adds, the more harmful the separation is bound to be.
Parents, too, are severely traumatized when their children are taken away from them. "These adults have already been through so much violence, fear, and terror...and now they are experiencing the loss of a child," says Stone. "This is deep-seated trauma that will affect every aspect of their health." Mental health is obviously a big part of this, but intense psychological stress can also translate to physical illnesses such as heart disease and high blood pressure.
And it’s not just the distance between family members that causes massive suffering. The detention centers themselves are often unfit environments for children. The AAP’s statement refers to “lack of bedding (eg, sleeping on cement floors), open toilets, no bathing facilities, constant light exposure, confiscation of belongings, insufficient food and water, lack of access to legal counsel, and a history of extremely cold temperatures.” All of this contributes to the young detainees’ already unsustainable stress loads, and the poor health outcomes that are likely to follow.
“The longer they’re living in a state of fear, the more potential for harm—and the more intervention you’ll have to do to get them back to a state of stability.” —Tovah Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development
While President Trump recently signed an executive order allowing newly detained families to stay together, they’ll still be forced to endure these unsuitable conditions—and the order doesn’t do anything to help the ones who’ve already been separated. For these parents and children, time is of the essence, says Dr. Klein. “There’s a big concern about getting children back to their parents, because the more time they’re away, the more stress and fear they’re under,” she says, noting that this is known as the “dosage effect.” “The longer they’re living in a state of fear, the more potential for harm—and the more intervention you’ll have to do to get them back to a state of stability.”
This intervention should include safe living conditions and therapy for the whole family to sort through their feelings and reestablish trust, she adds. “Being back together isn’t enough. There needs to be some post-unification support to get over the trauma." To help, you can donate to organizations such as The Young Center, Safe Passage Project, and Kids in Need of Defense, which are all working to provide this kind of assistance. (And while you’re at it, check out these 14 other groups working to protect immigrants.)
Feeling called to do even more? Keep on contacting your elected officials, organizing marches, and otherwise speaking out against the policies currently in place. It may just help stop an impending health crisis in its tracks.
Need some activist inspiration? Here's how the Women's March organizers take a stand without burning out. And this is how to deal if your news feed is triggering emotional eating.
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