Undocumented Immigrants Face Mental Health Challenges 

By Kelly Burch 08/28/19

“I feel like I’ve lived my entire life in this country on survival mode,” said one woman about her experience as an undocumented immigrant.

undocumented immigrants walking

After moving to the United States when she was 11, Azul Uribe thought she was like any other first-generation immigrant. However, just before her 22nd birthday her family revealed that she was undocumented. Thirteen years later, that information still impacts her mental health. 

“I’d gone from being this really gregarious, social, extroverted person to not being able to go to the grocery store when there were other people around because I felt like I was having a heart attack,” Uribe told USA Today

Uribe is just one of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States who are facing mental health challenges, often made worse by the hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric favored by the Trump administration. 

"It really impacts your ability to thrive,” said Esmeralda Zamudio, a California psychologist who works with undocumented immigrants. 

California resident Liliana Campos says that even though she now has a green card, she still lives with the trauma from being undocumented. Now, as the Mental Health Advocate at Immigrants Rising, she helps others cope with that stress. 

Stress and Trauma

“I feel like I’ve lived my entire life in this country on survival mode,” she said. “I don’t know anything else but continuing to fight for my community and myself, hoping that we will have justice and access to what we deserve as human beings.”

Cultural differences in recognizing and responding to mental illness make treating immigrant communities even more complex, said Andrew Lorenzen-Strait. In his role as director of children and family services at the Washington, D.C.-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lorenzen-Strait works with many undocumented people. 

He said, “What I found to be unique about the migrant community is so often they do not realize they have a mental health condition. And they don't even know to ask for help. And they don't even know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress issues or even the highest issues schizophrenia, bipolar, because that type of issue and condition is foreign to them.”

Lack Of Healthcare

In addition, many immigrants do not have health insurance or the means to pay out of pocket for mental health care. Gustavo Guerrero, an undocumented musician, pays $150 per session for therapy to cope with issues related to his immigration status. At that price, he can’t afford more than one session a month, even though the issues are always on his mind. 

“You're driving, you're working, you're sleeping in your home, you're picking up your kids from school, you're constantly thinking about it,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.