Family and community-based support systems critical to better mental health for Latino immigrants

Originally posted August 2011

nullOf the United States’ population growth over the last decade, 56 percent can be attributed to its Latino population. Though many of these individuals are born in the United States, migration still accounts for a large portion of the growing Latino population. The research of CPC Faculty Fellow Krista Perreira focuses on the effects migration can have on the mental health and well-being of immigrants and their families.

During her 10 years as a CPC Faculty Fellow and faculty member in the Department of Public Policy at UNC, Perreira has primarily concentrated her research on the well-being of children of immigrants. Her work has had interdisciplinary implications that reach far beyond her public policy background. The Southern Immigrant Academic Adaptation Study (SIAA) and the Latino Adolescent Migration, Health, and Adaptation Project (LAMHA) are two studies Perreira is currently focusing on with the assistance of CPC Predoctoral Trainees Stephanie Potochnick and Lisa Spees. The studies use different population samples and data collection instruments, but both consider qualitative and quantitative data to assess the factors surrounding health and education of Latino youth.

Though much of the LAMHA research was related to factors that increase the likelihood of depressive symptoms, it is imperative to note that one of the most important findings was quite different. The study found family reunification, social support and familism can counteract or reduce the negative factors associated with migration. This research finding is significant because it can provide direction for future programs and policies aiming to support immigrants. [Audio clip: Perreira describes how immigrants benefit from social support systems.]

The LAMHA study results are presented in three of Perreira’s recent papers. One paper, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in 2010, focused largely on the study’s qualitative data. Perreira and former CPC Graduate Research Assistant Linda Ko evaluated the impact of migration and acculturation experiences on Latino youth. Through interviews, they found that considering the events which occur throughout the migration process is pertinent to understanding the effects on the adolescents. Though Perreira and Ko saw that many of the Latino youth experienced discrimination and other difficulties, they were also aware of the new opportunities available to them. As one young interviewee said, “At first I didn’t want to go because of the change. Sometimes a person is afraid because it’s another country, it’s another culture, other people. And sometimes it’s as if you fear that, but really it’s like the saying goes, ‘No one becomes a prophet in their own land.’ So at times one has to search for other places and that’s what I’ve found in this country, a great opportunity.”

The article published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 2010 assessed first-generation Latino youth and their parents to better understand how various aspects of the pre-migration, post-migration, and migration experience influence mental health. Though Perreira found stress and discrimination can increase the adverse mental health risks for first-generation Latino youth, it also uncovered a critical element that can help protect adolescents from these harmful repercussions: social support at home, in school, and from the community.

A third paper focuses on the mental health of immigrant parents and will be published in Social Science & Medicine. Perreira coauthored the paper with former CPC Predoctoral Trainee India Ornelas. The primary goal of the paper is to help the academic and public health communities understand the importance of thinking holistically about which factors can, over the course of a life, lead to depressive symptoms. Perreira accomplished this by examining the mental health effects of pre-migration, migration and post-migration experiences. Previous related research has focused solely on the post-migration stage. As the LAMHA study shows, this approach neglects highly relevant periods of an immigrant’s life.

PAA 2011 LAMHA chart

Perreira says the decision to use a life-course approach to look at immigrants’ pre-migration and migration experiences was a result of what seems like common sense to her. “People’s lives today are a continuation of what their lives were yesterday,” Perreira said, “and if we want to understand outcomes today we need to understand where they came from and what experiences they’ve had.”

The study found that negative experiences in the pre-migration stage often continue to have an impact on immigrants after their migration. Living in poverty or being exposed to stressors, such as high neighborhood crime and violence, losing a job or experiencing a natural disaster, can have mental health consequences even after relocating. The strongest risk factor in this stage was found to be chronic high poverty before migration.

The actual process of migration was most strongly associated with adverse mental health effects when a traumatic event, such as rape or violence, occurred during the journey. Such occurrences are highly stressful and have the potential to increase the risk of depression in adults and anxiety in children.

In the post-migration stage, researchers found discrimination to be the strongest risk factor for depression. Racial conflict within an individual’s neighborhood was also found to increase the likelihood of depressive symptoms. Family reunification often resulted in positive mental health effects for immigrant parents. However, family reunification did not benefit children. Perreira says this may be because parents usually have full control over the decision to separate and migrate whereas children, especially young children, may feel a lack of control. When re-united with their parents, they must leave behind friends and family they know and begin to reacquaint themselves with the parents that left them and siblings they may have never met.

Describing the day that her mother announced that the family would join their father in the U.S., one adolescent said, “My mom gathered us all in the living room and told us, “You know what? Your dad wants us all to go and be together.” We said, “Oh no, why?” We didn’t want to separate from the rest of the family. My mom said, “I understand but we have been apart from your father too many years, and I really miss your dad and he misses us, and I want to be altogether.”

Much of Perreira’s research has considered the connection between the mental health of parents and their children. Parents who are depressed or experience symptoms of depression typically find it more difficult to take care of themselves and their children. About 27 percent of parents studied exhibited mild symptoms of depression and 15 percent showed signs of more severe depressive symptoms.

Children of Immagrants Settling across the US

As the mental health of parents affects the well-being of their children, Perreira believes it is crucial to cultivate policies and programs that sustain and support immigrant families and communities. The U.S. does not currently have strong integration policies, which pertain to immigrants after their move. Such policies could help smooth transitions for new immigrants and reduce the stress associated with depressive symptoms. [Audio clip: Perreira talks about current U.S. immigration policies.]

In moving forward, Perreira plans to continue studying factors associated with the migration process and encourages other researchers to begin considering more than the post-migration period. As for her approach to research, Perreira says that she innately has a life course lens. Developed by Glen Elder, Jr., the life course approach assesses the importance of life transitions and trajectories for health and well-being. Elder is also a CPC Faculty Fellow and is a Research Professor of Sociology and Psychology at UNC. Perreira is a prime example of how this approach can be effectively applied within other disciplines.

Perreira emphasized the critical support CPC’s Research Services staff members have provided during the research process as well as the vital role her undergraduate and graduate student assistants have played. Perreira says her research on the mental health and well-being of immigrants would not be possible without these supporters. [Audio clip: Perreira explains how CPC staff support her research projects.]


Ko, Linda K., Krista M. Perreira. “It Turned My World Upside Down”: Latino Youths’ Perspectives on Immigration. Journal of Adolescent Research. 2010; 25 (3):465-93.

Ornelas, India J., Krista M. Perreira. The Role of Migration in the Development of Depressive Symptoms among Latino Immigrant Parents in the USA. Social Science & Medicine. Forthcoming: Online ahead of print.

Potochnick, Stephanie R., Krista M. Perreira. Depression and Anxiety among First-Generation Immigrant Latino Youth: Key Correlates and Implications for Future Research. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 2010; 198 (7):470-7.


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