In a first of its kind study, University of Houston psychology researchers are investigating how the trauma experienced by migrants before and during the journey to the United States affects their mental and physical health.
The researchers will collect data at various stages of the migrant experience from 400 undocumented adults from Latin America seeking asylum in the U.S., with the aim of understanding how trauma during this process leads to inflammatory responses in the body; systemic inflammation is associated not only with mental illness but also with obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and other conditions that can cause death.
Amanda Venta, associate professor of psychology at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to lead the study.
"This study came from clinical observations where we’re seeing a lot of illness at the time of migration," Venta said. "We are trying to understand the toll these tremendous migration experiences take on not only the mind but also on the body, recognizing that this is a hardship which includes excessive walking, starvation, lack of water as well as psychological terror.”
The number of migrants crossing from Mexico has reached historic proportions. U.S. authorities made more than two million immigration arrests for the first time along the southern border over the past year.
Venta’s team will incorporate state-of-the-art biological markers and qualitative and quantitative methods to provide new information about mechanisms that underlie health risk in Latin American migrants. Researchers will investigate inflammatory markers like interleukin-6 and interleukin-10, which are proteins secreted by white blood cells to regulate the immune system, and the role they play in the body’s inflammatory response.
Psychologists at Rice University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, as well as biologists at Northwestern University, will work with the team to test how inflammation contributes to poor health outcomes in migrants.
“By measuring inflammatory biomarkers in this study, we hope to draw connections between inflammation, trauma exposure and posttraumatic distress in Latinx migrants for the first time,” Venta said.
In addition, Venta's team will identify factors within the study subjects’ social, personal and cultural environments and examine how these factors affect inflammatory responses and wellbeing.
Participants will be recruited from migrant camps and shelters on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Venta said follow-up data will be collected a year later, at which point the entire study sample is expected to be in the U.S. awaiting further immigration court hearings. They will be contacted to follow up by email, phone or even WhatsApp, a social messaging app.
Venta and her colleagues believe their work will present scientific evidence that a variety of factors influence the health of vulnerable populations, and their findings could aid policymakers in reducing existing disparities.
This research is also personal to Venta, who is Latina. Although she was born in the U.S., her parents and grandparents are migrants.
“I think anything the scientific community can do to bring attention to the needs and resilience of the Latinx immigrant community is an important responsibility. We have to do our part to recognize the ways in which immigration policies and experiences are hurting immigrants, so we can try to solve those problems moving forward.”
Matt Birnholz, MDPeer