“I’ve been struggling with my mental health since I was 10 or so,” said Sara, a petite 22-year-old who works as a teacher at a junior high school. Sara lives with her parents in a midsize city just southwest of Phoenix, where she was born and raised. Her mother came to the United States as a Cambodian refugee in the 70s—a process that forced her to “grow up faster than anyone should have to,” in Sara’s words. “She still has a lot of trauma to unpack.”
With an immigrant mother and an American-born white father, Sara spent much of her childhood struggling to find a sense of belonging. “The community I grew up in is mostly white and conservative, so there weren’t many people who looked like me, let alone who could relate to my experiences as the daughter of an immigrant,” Sara said.
Her mental health was never really a consideration for her mother—instead, trauma became a point of comparison. “Every time I tried to talk to my mom about [my mental health], the conversation would steer toward how I had nothing to be depressed about,” Sara said. “We are an upper-middle-class family. My upbringing was cushy and sheltered compared to her own, so she’s not completely wrong, but we only know our own realities.”
The children of immigrants may never pass a physical border, but they still face serious barriers to accessing mental health resources in the United States. There’s the challenge of financing therapy or psychiatry and any associated medications—especially given the number of immigrants who are uninsured, which is roughly 23 percent of lawfully present immigrants and 45 percent of undocumented immigrants (excluding elderly populations), according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. There are language barriers. And there are race barriers—with fewer people of color using psychological resources and fewer people of color working in psychology.
But the strictly cultural barriers are just as pervasive, though they’re harder to quantify. In reporting this story, second-generation immigrants have shared with me, myself a second-generation immigrant, the sense that “therapy just didn’t exist” to their parents, or was “deeply stigmatized.” (The people interviewed asked to remain anonymous to protect personal details and medical history, and also to protect the identity of their family members.)
The majority of new immigrants to the U.S. are people of color, meaning both parents and children must navigate the realities of racism, but each generation experiences discrimination differently. While U.S.-born children of immigrants don’t have to weather the traumas of migration itself, they may have a harder time enduring discrimination, thanks to having a “singular frame of reference,” said Tomás R. Jiménez, a professor of sociology at Stanford. Parents instead have a “dual frame of reference,” which means “parents are judging life in the United States based on their comparison to the place that they left,” Jiménez added. “Kids only know the kinds of discrimination they face in the United States. And that often leads them to conclude things are a lot worse [than what their parents faced] or that they’re pretty bad.”
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