Depression Is Far Too Common for Undocumented Youth

Two DREAMers take on pervasive depression among undocumented peers.

April 22, 2013— -- When 18-year-old Joaquin Luna, Jr. committed suicide in 2011, his family told reporters he had killed himself because of the despair he felt over his immigration status. He lived in Mission, Texas and wanted to become an engineer. Then there was Yanelli Hernandez, a DREAM Act eligible 22-year-old in Reading, Ohio who was taking anti-depressants and had attempted suicide twice before she was deported by immigration officials in 2011.

These and many other cases have opened a conversation on the mental health needs of undocumented youth. The failure of the DREAM Act in 2010 dealt a blow to the psyches of the undocumented young people. Ask any undocumented youth today and most -- if not all -- will agree the disappointment was devastating.

Imelda Plascencia says she has lived three bouts of depression as a result of the grief of her status. Plascencia, 27, who was brought from Mexico by her family when she was 5, said that the struggles she faced were "so daunting and heavy and overwhelming."

"Being undocumented is very much a roller coaster," she says. "You're constantly being defeated in so many ways."

Getting your first car or moving out for college are cultural rites of passage that mark a person's transition into becoming a self-sustaining adult. Undocumented immigrants who are denied these rites by their situation are also deprived of the growth that comes with those moments. Their status keeps them in what researchers call a "developmental limbo."

For Plascencia, the anxiety of possibly being deported and stresses of her status took a toll on her.

So she decided to do something about it.

With the support of the Dream Resource Center in Los Angeles, Pascencia started the CIRCLE Project in 2011.

CIRCLE, or Collective of Immigrant Resilience through Community Led Empowerment, is a talking circle for members to vent frustrations and learn how others are dealing with their status. The intimate sessions, of less than 10 people provide an opportunity for youth to collectively support each other and share resources for dealing with their struggle.

There about five in the Los Angeles area where young undocumented immigrants can share experiences and seek help from their peers. Undocumented college-age volunteers lead the sessions.

Luis Nolasco , 22, who was brought from Mexico at the age of 9, says his identity made him feel "super isolated" and that the limbo he found himself in led to his depression.

"It sucked. It was hell. It's something I wouldn't want anyone to go through," he said.

"There isn't much help for our community. Realistically, none of us has funds to see a therapist and pay $100 per hour," he said, noting that many undocumented immigrant live below or near poverty levels and are unable to access health care.

Nolasco is working with heath officials in Riverside, a county adjacent to Los Angeles, to create a similar program for undocumented youth there.

In addition to creating the talking circles for young people, Nolasco is engaging service providers to improve how they help undocumented immigrants with their mental health needs.

"Calling a suicide hotline and having to explain to people what being undocumented is unacceptable," says Nolasco. "So you're calling, but the majority of your call is spent educating the person about being undocumented."

The tension of being undocumented inevitably impacts all parts of an individual's life from dating and intra-family relationships to mental and emotion health of the person. Not surprisingly, undocumented youth struggle with depression, anxiety or other stress related problems.

"It's a daily lived experience," said Plascencia, and a situation that she says must change. For her, improving community's mental health will help build the immigrant youth movement too.

"How much more powerful will our movement be once we are healed people," she said.