NEWS RELEASE, 09/14/98

Adapting to American society causes mental illness to double among Mexican immigrants, finds UC Berkeley study

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- As Mexican nationals adapt to American society, their rates of mental disorder begin to soar, a professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, has discovered.

In the largest study of its type, involving approximately 3,000 people, Professor William Vega has found that acculturation to American patterns has a detrimental impact on the mental health of Mexican immigrants. And the longer they've been in the United States, the worse it gets.

Vega found twice the rate of mental disturbance among Mexican-Americans born in this country, compared to recent immigrants or Mexicans who remained in their homeland.

His report was published today in the Archives of General Psychiatry, the American Medical Association's primary journal in the field of mental illness. Co-authors were Ethel Alderete and Ralph Catalano of UC Berkeley; Bohdan Kolody of San Diego State University; Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola of California State University, Fresno; and Jorge Caraveo-Anduaga of the Mexican Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico City.

The team found that for U.S.-born Mexican-Americans, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with any mental disorder was similar to that for non-Hispanic whites - 48.1 percent, or almost one in two people. But for new immigrants and Mexican nationals, the rate was only 24.9 percent.

Moreover, they discovered that the rate of mental illness climbed consistently after immigration, so that Mexicans who had been in this country for more than 13 years had nearly the same high rate as native-born Americans.

"This is clearly a social effect," said Vega, "not a biological one."

"Mexicans come to this country with some kind of natural protection against mental disorder, and that breaks down very quickly in American society," he said. "In fact, it goes in one generation."

He believes this protection lies in the strength of Mexican families and the emotional support and security individuals receive from being imbedded in a family group. Such benefits countered even the effects of poverty among Mexican immigrants, Vega discovered.

"These people are under enormous financial stress," said Vega. "Yet, the primary issue for the development of mental disturbance was not financial. I believe it has to do with the emotional support and nurturance people received from living in committed family relationships."

Vega and his team interviewed some 3,000 residents of Fresno County in California, choosing a sample of households from urban, rural and small town environments. The sample was representative of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans and Mexican-born immigrant populations, with roughly 1,500 from each group.

Originally Vega intended to focus on the urban-rural differences in mental disorder. It is known that rates for mental disorder are lower among rural residents. In fact, Vega did find such a difference, but it washed away when he factored in the immigrant status.

"Wherever the immigrants lived, the rates were lower," said Vega. "Whether in urban or rural areas, the increased mental disturbance came with acculturation into the American mainstream."

The worst problem was drug abuse and/or drug dependence, which was four times higher among Mexican-Americans than Mexican immigrants. Anxiety and depression showed the second highest rates of increase.

Schizophrenia, however, was not included in the test of mental disorders that Vega adapted from a 1994 instrument called the World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview.

To find out whether the protective factor was due to national differences in rates of psychiatric disorder, the team compared the Fresno sample with a sample of about 1,700 people in Mexico City.

Interviews were conducted, using the same survey as in Fresno, by the Mexican Institute of Psychiatry. Again, the rate for mental disorder was half that of the Mexican-Americans (and other non-Hispanic whites).

Divorce rates exemplified the rapid breakdown of family ties, Vega said. Among Mexican immigrants, 80 percent of the people interviewed were currently married, compared to only 50 percent of Mexican-Americans in Fresno County.

But "divorce alone is not the cause of the decline in mental health," said Vega. "It is one example of a change in values away from collective family life."

"American people report that they need less contact with their families of origin, compared to reports from Mexican immigrants," he said. Vega said previous studies have shown that Americans believe they are satisfied with telephone contact and feel freer when they move away from continuous family contact.

"But there is a cost for this greater personal and economic freedom." said Vega. "The cost is loss of reciprocal support. Friends don't replace that in the main."

"Mexicans are coming from a much more integrated family system," he said. "There are tremendous benefits of that in terms of everyday psychological resilience. They are much more likely to be in a situation where people help each other out. As a result, they are likely to be more satisfied with their lives."

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