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Pre-Migration Trauma Exposure and Mental Health Functioning among Central American Migrants Arriving at the US Border

January 10, 2017

In recent years, increasing numbers of families and individuals have arrived at the U.S. border from Central America, in particular, from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. This study sought to examine pre-migration trauma exposure and current mental health functioning of migrant families arriving at the U.S. border from the Northern Triangle region, with specific attention to the reasons offered for leaving their home country and the frequency with which migrant families appear to satisfy legal criteria for asylum We interviewed 234 adults in McAllen, Texas, using a structured interview and standardized questionnaires to assess exposure to trauma prior to migration, reasons for leaving their home country and symptoms of posttraumatic stress and depression. We found that 191 participants (83%) cited violence as a reason for fleeing their country, 119 individuals (69%) did not report the events to the police out of fear of gang-related retaliation or police corruption, and 90% (n = 204) reported being afraid to return to their native country. Based on self-report symptom checklists, 32% of the sample met diagnostic criteria for PTSD (n = 51), 24% for depression (n = 36), and 17% for both disorders (n = 25). Examining these data against the criteria for asylum in the U.S., we found that 70% of the overall sample (n = 159) met criteria for asylum, including 80% of those from El Salvador, 74% from Honduras, and 41% from Guatemala. These findings suggest that the majority of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. border have significant mental health symptoms in response to violence and persecution, and warrant careful consideration for asylum status.