The aim of this paper is to explore the mental health challenges that Central American immigrant youth face before and after arriving in the United States. This population is hard to reach, marginalized, and disproportionately exposed to trauma from a young age. This paper investigates the mental health stressors experienced by Central American immigrant youth and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, surveyed in the U.S. in 2017. This mixed methods study uses qualitative data from interviews along with close-ended questions and the validated PHQ-8 Questionnaire and the Child PTSD Symptom Scale (CPSS). These new migrants face numerous challenges to mental health, increased psychopathological risk exacerbated by high levels of violence and low state-capacity in their countries of origin, restrictive immigration policies, the fear of deportation for themselves and their family members, and the pressure to integrate once in the U.S. We find that Central American youth have seen improvements in their self-reported mental health after migrating to the U.S., but remain at risk of further trauma exposure, depression, and PTSD. We find that they exhibit a disproportionate likelihood of having lived through traumatizing experiences that put them at higher risk for psychological distress and disorders that may create obstacles to integration. These can, in turn, create new stressors that exacerbate PTSD, depression, and anxiety. These conditions can be minimized through programs that aid immigrant integration and mental health.
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