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Trump’s immigration policy is harming Latinx teens’ mental health, according to a new study

New research suggests that President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have real consequences on the mental health of Latinx youth, even those born in the U.S. In a June 24 JAMA Pediatrics study, Latinx American teens with high levels of concern about how the country's current immigration policy would impact their families reported having greater anxiety and worse sleep quality.

The study included 397 U.S.-born Latinx teens in Salinas Valley, California with at least one parent who had immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico or Central America. Before the 2016 presidential election (when the teens were 14 years old) and during the year after the election (when they were 16), the subjects underwent measurements of their anxiety, depression symptoms, and sleep quality, among other health indicators. Throughout the year after the election, they also spoke to researchers about their thoughts on the immigration crisis and their families' well-being.

About 45% of the teens said that they were at least sometimes concerned about the implications that the U.S. immigration policy could have on their families. Teens with the highest levels of concern reported feeling more anxious and sleeping more poorly than those with lower levels, and they were also more likely to report or display anxiety symptoms that could warrant a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or place them at risk for such a diagnosis. What’s more, these teens saw their anxiety increase the most right after the 2016 election.

And these mental health issues might be having real consequences. “We know that anxiety, stress, is under the skin and can have lots of implications for different aspects of health,” says Brenda Eskenazi, a public health researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and the study’s lead author. “Does it affect their ability to concentrate in school? Does it affect their ability to relate to their peers and family members?”

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While researchers didn't look at youth in non-Latinx immigrant families, Eskenazi says that it's possible the study's results extend there, too. The report was published shortly after Trump postponed nationwide ICE raids that he had announced on Twitter only days earlier, an example of the constant climate of uncertainty that Eskenazi feels contributes to the concerns of teens from immigrant families everywhere. “The not knowing, the constant back-and-forth, raises anxiety levels,” she says.

Because Eskenazi's team only looked at the “best-case scenario" — meaning Latinx teens living in a predominantly Latinx region in a sanctuary state — the situation may be even worse for teens in parts of the country with low Latinx populations and fewer protections for immigrants. “In a way, they can be supportive of each other because they’re all going through it, but what if you’re isolated and feeling discriminated against on top of being concerned about your own family?” Eskenazi asks.

In the time since the study's research was done, her team has checked back in with the teens, now 18, to determine whether their anxiety has continued to increase, as well as whether they’re demonstrating high-risk behaviors or struggling academically, according to a report from UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. Eskenazi explains that researchers are also wondering whether the teens may be more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate their anxiety, but that's not yet known.

Whatever may happen, the study's findings do suggest that the impact of Trump’s rhetoric has rippled well beyond the DACA recipients and other immigrants it targets, harming even young U.S. citizens, which the administration claims it wants to prioritize. “We need to have a clear immigration policy that protects children,” citizens or not, Eskenazi says. “If we don’t protect the next generation, the effects could be far-reaching, not just for them, but for our society.”