Statistics and research show that first-generation Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. are less likely to have mental health and substance use disorders than Caucasian Americans and later-generation immigrants. We call this the immigrant paradox. In spite of many factors that one might assume would lead to a greater instance of mental illness and substance abuse, like poverty and trauma, these immigrants are protected by their birth status. Their offspring do not have the same protective factor. Researchers are working to explore and explain this intriguing paradox.
Immigrants and Mental Health
According to statistics collected on mental health, about 43 percent of Caucasian Americans have any lifetime history of mental illness. The number for Hispanics in America is only 30 percent, while for first-generation Hispanic immigrants, the number goes down even more to 25 percent. For Hispanics born in the U.S., the lifetime prevalence of mental illness is similar to white Americans at 37 percent. The differences are significant and the facts clearly show that there is some protective factor at work among first-generation immigrants. That protective factor declines with time. Researchers have found that for Mexican immigrants, 13 years of living in the U.S. is the point at which the protection goes down and mental health problems go up.
Immigrant Youth and Substance Abuse
We also know that the immigrant paradox extends to substance abuse. First-generation Hispanic immigrants are much less likely to use alcohol to cope with stress than their offspring. This is in spite of the fact that many immigrants have stress associated with acculturation and finding employment, as well as barriers to education and good housing. One study showed this difference among Hispanic teens who were either first-, second- or third-generation immigrants to the U.S. The young second- and third-generation immigrants were much more likely to abuse alcohol than those born outside the U.S.
Explaining the Immigrant Paradox
Finding facts about mental health and substance abuse and seeing the difference between generational immigrants is the easy part of the research. Explaining why first-generation immigrants are protected is more difficult. These are the people coming to the U.S. with all kinds of stresses, like an inability to speak English, poverty and difficulties fitting into a new culture, and yet they seem to be more resilient.
In terms of the teens and substance abuse, researchers think that an erosion of family values could be a factor. Teens who have acculturated in the U.S. may have weaker connections to their families and their original cultures. First-generation teens are buffered by the strong connections to family and culture, which likely discourage drinking. Having that strong bond with family and culture also acts as a support system. Without it, teens may turn to drinking to cope with stress.
First-generation immigrants may suffer from fewer mental illnesses for similar reasons. They maintain a strong support system and sense of family and culture. In spite of trauma suffered, especially among refugee immigrants, many refuse to be seen as victims. They are survivors instead and they are resilient and determined.
Researchers studying the immigrant paradox are not satisfied with the answers found so far. They want to know exactly what factors and values explain the good mental health of first-generation Hispanic immigrants. With this knowledge, we could all benefit and learn to be more resilient, find better ways to cope than substance abuse and have overall better mental health. Americans have a lot to learn from our immigrant friends and neighbors.