Ambivalence about migration may contribute to poor mental health in Latino men

December 29, 2005

Men migrating to the United States from Mexico and Central America often face competing desires: wanting to remain with their families while realizing that migration offers the promise of a better future. These feelings of ambivalence may be associated with poor mental health, such as anxiety, according to new research by Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The study involved 60 male migrant farm workers in a four-county area in North Carolina (Harnett, Johnston, Sampson and Wake). The results are reported in the current issue of the Journal of Immigrant Health by Joseph G. Grzywacz, Ph.D., and colleagues.

"The consequences of poor mental health are serious," said Grzywacz, an assistant professor of family medicine at Wake Forest's School of Medicine, which is part of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "Farmwork can be a hazardous environment and if workers have anxiety or depression, they may fail to take appropriate precautions to prevent occupational health injuries."

Previous research found that about 25 percent of Mexican immigrants have a psychiatric illness such as depression or anxiety during their lifetimes. Common explanations for poor mental health among immigrants include the clash of cultures and the physical and emotional demands of immigration. The Wake Forest study focused on whether ambivalence about migration may play a role.

Study participants were interviewed in Spanish. Standard psychological scales were used to measure anxiety, depression and stress. Ambivalence was measured by asking workers to respond to specific factors known to compel men to come to the United States as well as factors known to pull them back to Mexico.

The researchers found that 75 percent of men reported ambivalence about leaving their children or spouses and 66 percent faced ambivalence about leaving their parents. The researchers found that each type of family-related ambivalence was associated with more symptoms of anxiety, compared to men with no ambivalence. The researchers did not find a consistent relationship between ambivalence and depression.

"Family ambivalence inherent in migration is associated with poorer mental health among Latino men," said Grzywacz. "We found that the anxiety can be exacerbated when they are unable to call relatives in Mexico frequently."

Men often come to the United States without their spouses or children. Even when both spouses migrate, some or all of the children may remain behind. In a previously published report, in Community, Work, and Family (August, 2005), Grzywacz sought to bring the "voices, needs and experiences" of migrant workers to the attention of work-family scholars. The article included this interview with a migrant farm worker:

"I left Mexico when my older son was one year old. I always tell my friends how bad it hurts doing that. I feel sad when I remember my son in Mexico because my wife and I are eating meat here and maybe he is only eating beans and rice there. This is very upsetting to me. I talk to him every two weeks or once a month. Once I asked him what he would like for me to get him and he told me that the only thing he wanted was for us to come back to Mexico. This broke my heart because he is a child and he needs his parents with him."

Grzywacz said the study results suggest that agencies and professionals who work with migrant workers should focus on ways to enhance communication between migrants and their families as one way to meet the mental health needs of Latinos. For examples, placing public telephones in rural areas would allow workers to talk to their families more frequently.

Co-researchers were Sara A. Quandt, Ph.D., Thomas A. Arcury, Ph.D., and Antonio Marin, M.D., all with Wake Forest Baptist.
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Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university's School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,187 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of "America's Best Hospitals" by U.S. News & World Report.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

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