Alt-Health: Separation Anxiety

Trump has finally signed the executive order that ended the separation of immigrant families and children at the borders, but the families in question seem to still be in limbo As of June 27, more than 2,000 children remain separated from their parents. In the six days that have elapsed since the order was signed, only six children have been returned to their families. On a recent NPR program, the question was asked: “Why is it taking so long for this executive order to be enacted?” According to an expert from the Department of Human Services, there is no reasonable explanation. “The entire process could have been completed within 72 hours.” Clearly, something is amiss.

Since this is an issue that has no foreseeable end in sight, let’s turn our attention to a disturbing side effect of this border detention system, which the current administration doesn’t seem to have considered – the short and long term medical consequences of the separation, and incarceration, of immigrant families.

First, let’s look at what stress in general can do to human beings. Stress doesn’t just make us feel awful emotionally, it can also make us physically sick. Countless medical studies have found stress to have an adverse, and even causative effect on myriad medical problems. On WebMD, the list of stress-related maladies reads like a Who’s Who of misery: heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, Alzheimer’s disease and accelerated aging & premature death. Most of these conditions are chronic, which means a lifetime of problems and, for immigrants, additional struggles with poverty: More than 75% of all health care costs are due to chronic conditions.

Republications in favor of immigration reform argue that the detained children are being treated better than they were back in their home country, but many experts are not so certain. In fact, it seems that the ramifications of this unfortunate saga in American history may have more far-reaching consequences than the White House can imagine. Mental health groups and human rights organizations have weighed in, and it is their belief that serious, lasting harm is possible to both the children and their parents. Forced family separation has been condemned by groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association and the United Nations human rights office.

While the extreme actions at the border were undertaken by Trump with the intent of making progress toward immigration reform and border walls, the children involved are having quite a different experience. Megan McKenna, senior director of communications at the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) limned their plight: “They just have no understanding of what’s happening to them or when they’re going to see their family again, and we can’t tell them when they’re going to see their parents again because we don’t know either. It’s extraordinarily damaging to the child.”

Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are just two of the possibilities. The sudden removal of a caregiver can create acute distress that harms a child’s ability to cope and self-soothe. Developing brains are particularly vulnerable. Chronic exposure to stress in children can release toxic chemicals that cause damage to the brain tissue; neurons begin to die off. The structure of the brain is slow to develop and IQ potential is lowered. If a child’s initial brain wiring is poorly done, it’s very difficult to come back and build a solid structure on that shaky foundation. Such children seldom get the special attention and care they need. As a result, they face a future full of challenges that they are ill-equipped to handle. These children are at higher risk for ongoing anxiety, depression and PTSD as they get older. Those factors, in turn, hurt their future educational outcomes and sense of well-being, and can cause behavioral problems. For all of the afore-mentioned reasons, family separation can cause irreversible harm for children, even when kids are separated from parents in a non-forceful way.

Here is another fact: The majority of the families that have been detained are seeking asylum from conditions that are dangerous and unlivable in their own countries. They are not looking to murder us in our sleep, to rape our women, or perform acts of terrorism. They are risking their lives so that they may find a better future for their children. The United States of America was founded by immigrants who were seeking a better way of life and for themselves and their families. Nearly all of our own ancestors were immigrants to this land. As we celebrate the 4th of July and this great country of ours, let’s remember that.

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