Psychological well being of undocumented school college students worst hit by COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant financial and life-related burdens, as well as adverse health effects, including relatively high mortality rates. A new study by researchers at Delaware State University, published in September 2020 on the preprint server medRxiv *, reports that the mental health effects are disproportionately felt in undocumented immigrants studying at U.S. colleges .

Fears in the DACA group

One of the biggest fears in this community is the possibility of getting COVID-19, losing family members, and not being able to earn enough to live due to unemployment and the global economic crisis. These undocumented immigrants, also known as dreamers, first came to the United States during their minority. However, the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program allows them to continue their education and work legally in the US without fear of deportation.

Despite the DACA protection, they are still a marginalized and poor community. The discussion about tightening the laws against illegal immigrants can lead to the deportation or detention of friends or family members and heighten their fears. Additionally, they suffer from financial pressures and academic challenges that are compounded by tackling a new social network and being separated from their families.

The pandemic has only made matters worse because of its economic impact. Undocumented immigrants are usually not eligible for unemployment benefits or economic stimulus programs. Mental health problems are largely ignored. This has led some scientists to predict an unusually sharp rise in mental health problems in this community during the pandemic.

Blacks and Hispanics overly affected

The current study aimed to examine the impact of the pandemic on dreamers currently enrolled in colleges. The 2017 estimate for this group was 241,000 in the U.S., with a projected GDP contribution of over $ 460 billion over the next decade.

The researchers point out the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Latin Americans, related to the higher infection and death rate, higher unemployment rate, and slower recovery rate.

Investigators initially encountered fear of deportation, and many dreamers were reluctant to identify themselves in order to examine a large sample. The reasons include fear of being discriminated against by their peers or of being refused admission due to missing documents. In addition, the admissions data collected by many colleges do not allow dreamers to be identified, while others may not disclose such information.

The current study overcame this obstacle by using a panel of dreamers enrolled in a public university in Delaware on a scholarship from TheDream.US. Using online surveys and clinical tools, they assessed mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as well as related factors such as academic stress, immigration-related issues, the pandemic, and the current work situation. They aimed to determine the incidence of mental health problems compared to students in general and to link certain factors to these problems.

Percentage of undocumented college students in our sample who met clinical thresholds for anxiety (GAD-7 score ≥ 10), depression (PHQ-9 score ≥ 10), anxiety, or depression (GAD-7 score and / or PHQ- 9-Score ≥ 10). and thoughts of suicide (ie, thoughts within the last 2 weeks of “feeling better when you are dead, or thoughts of harming yourself in some way”). The results suggest that a high proportion of undocumented students suffered from anxiety as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. If further assessed, respondents would likely meet the criteria for a full diagnosis of anxiety or depression disorder.

Dreamers are twice as likely to get depression

The researchers found that 45% and 50% of the dreamers in this study were above the GAD-7 and PHQ-9 thresholds for anxiety and depression, respectively. In contrast, ~ 30% and 40% of the general student population met limits for these conditions. In particular, the rate of depression among dreamers is twice that of the general US population (50% versus 24%).

Two-thirds of dreamers hit the threshold for anxiety, depression, or both. This shows how common these students are with these problems, and the researchers say, “Those who met clinical limits would likely receive a full diagnosis for an anxiety or depression disorder if further evaluated.”

This observed increase in anxiety and depression persisted after adjusting for race and age.

Stress is much higher among dreamers

Almost 30% of dreamers reported having thoughts of suicide, with the perceived stress score of ~ 23 being significantly higher than what is expected in the 18-29 age group (~ 14) or the general population (13).

Researchers believe that this represents a significant increase in mental health problems in this group compared to pre-pandemic times, although there are no mental health results for this group. For one thing, a greater percentage of dreamers who hit thresholds for anxiety and depression are much higher than those seen in pre-pandemic research in the same population.

Second, more than half of the dreamers in the current survey reported a serious decline in their mental health due to the pandemic, and it was also found that those had higher average scores for mental illness as well as higher chances of making the cut. Out for anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

Recently reported statistics on mental illness in the student population are generally much lower. This shows that not all of these increases in anxiety and depression are due to the general increase in stress at this stage in life, when young adults face many and varied difficulties. The results therefore confirm the predictions of scientists that this group would be exposed to a disproportionate amount of psychological stress due to COVID-19.

Financial and health problems

In most households of origin, the savings are barely enough to support the family for a very short period of unemployment. Since these households are not entitled to government support, there is a high risk of falling into greater poverty.

The heads of household who still have jobs are likely to be important workers, but this increases the risk of acquiring COVID-19. This is a serious risk as most immigrants are more likely to have comorbidities related to severe or critical COVID-19.

In almost all cases, the participant’s immediate family was not insured for medical claims, which resulted in them being beyond the limits of medical treatment. These are likely to cause increased stress in children in these families as well.

Implications and Future Directions

This preliminary study will help examine the mental health of dreamers and point out future areas of research. For example, a more heterogeneous sample would be optimal, as in a national survey. However, this sample group was representative of dreamers in national-level studies previously conducted on significant social and demographic characteristics.

The researchers found that those dreamers who were more concerned about finances and academics as well as immigration, including students whose parents had lost their jobs during the pandemic, were more likely to have higher levels of anxiety and depression.

The interpretation of these results was that the pandemic added to concerns about pre-existing problems. The best way to confirm the validity of this conclusion is to conduct longitudinal studies to trace the relationship between changes in these relevant concerns and the high percentage of mental health problems.

The researchers also suggest that the negative effects of the pandemic were more pronounced in this group, at over half, than in the general population, where a third of Americans reported deterioration in mental health over that period.

In relation to the reasons for this phenomenon, some promising indications have been given: concerns about fulfilling academic requirements, fear of deportation, and financial burdens.

The specific influence of DACA is another factor to investigate, as some research shows that DACA itself affects the mental health of dreamers.

Again, this study could indicate the need to examine other issues such as panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in the undocumented immigrant community as a whole. The purpose of this and related exercises is to promote government policies that encourage the integration of this group of students into the mainstream, not only in the COVID-19 crisis but in other emergency situations that may arise in the EU

* Important NOTE

medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be considered conclusive, guide clinical practice / health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

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