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Study Looks at Migrant Mental Health

Texas Business reports:  Long hours of backbreaking work in the fields, on construction sites or as day laborers, along with being away from family and friends for days, months or years can take a toll on the mental health of migrant workers.

UTEP Assistant Professor of Social Work Griselda Villalobos and Jose Luis Lopez-Lopez, a professor from the Universidad de Guadalajara’s public health department, spent a year interviewing nearly 200 Mexican migrant workers who came to the United States to see if their lifestyles made them susceptible to depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

“My research interest is being able to decrease mental health disparities for Hispanic populations,” Villalobos said. “Finding out the mental health needs of migrant men is one step toward finding out how we can decrease some of these mental health disparities.”

Participants were recruited from Centro Sin Fronteras, a nonprofit organization that helps migrant workers in El Paso. Villalobos also traveled to Longview, Texas, to recruit men for her study.

With the assistance of two UTEP students in the Master of Social Work program, Villalobos interviewed 93 men in the United States. Her colleague talked to 104 men in Mexico.

What she found was a group of men who worked hard, lived simple lives and whose emotional state was difficult to diagnose using mainstream methods for measuring depression and anxiety.

“The image of their family progressing is what keeps them going on a day-to-day basis,” Villalobos said. “They live such basic lives. They sleep on the floor, get their meals at Centro Sin Fronteras, they get their mail there, but that’s their life – sleeping and working.”

Researchers interviewed men ages 19 to 80 who crossed into the U.S. during the week and returned home on weekends, or who lived here for nine months and went back to Mexico in the winter. They also talked to men who had come to the U.S. as migrant workers 10 to 20 years ago and stayed.

The majority of the men were not undocumented and several had obtained their residency in the 1980s during the amnesty program, Villalobos said.

Participants answered questions about depression, anxiety and substance use, which gave researchers insight into the population.

“Through the study, we were able to grasp a better perspective of their experiences. By learning their stories, we were able to better understand the population,” said Daisey Lobatos, one of the research assistants who interviewed the men.

Villalobos found that the nine classic symptoms usually used to measure anxiety and depression, such as lack of energy or concentration, do not apply to migrant workers because of their lifestyle.

“Let’s say they don’t have energy; well, they don’t have a choice. They have to get up,” she said. “If you ask them, ‘Do you find that you don’t have pleasure in doing things that you used to do before,’ well, their life is very simple. They don’t do much, so that question doesn’t apply to them as much.”

According to Villalobos, 72 percent of the men sampled in the U.S. and Mexico did not have symptoms of depression. However, she believes that these migrant workers could still be depressed even though they did not show the classic signs of the disease.

“One of the things that we do for people who come to therapy for depression or anxiety is tell them to get active,” Villalobos said. “So, work may be considered a protective factor for (migrant workers) against depression and anxiety. When you have time to sit around and think about how bad your life is, you’re going to feel depressed or anxious.”

Although participants shared feelings of loneliness and despair, the researchers were inspired by their stories of endurance and perseverance.

“When you would ask them how they felt about what they were doing, they would say, ‘What keeps me going is that I know I have three kids in college back in Mexico. What keeps me going is that if I don’t work then my family in Mexico is not going to eat,’” Villalobos said. “It’s very enriching in the sense that you can see the strength in the human spirit and that humbleness.”

Velia Herren was one of the UTEP graduate students who also helped Villalobos interview men for the study. Her ancestors were migrant workers and her involvement was an opportunity for her to understand the motives behind their way of life.

“I gained a lot of insight into the life of a migrant worker, the hardships that they must endure, and the reason why they do so,” said Herren, who graduated in December and now works for a family service agency in Albuquerque, N.M. “I found that in most cases they do so because they are loyal to their families and have a desire for a better life for themselves and their families.”

Villalobos has entered the next phase of her study, in which she proposes to identify new screening methods that are more appropriate for migrant workers. She also suggests developing and implementing mental health education programs and alcohol and drug consumption prevention programs for migrants in churches or migrant centers.

Starting in April, Villalobos will launch a one-year education program at Centro Sin Fronteras. On the first Wednesday of every month, faculty from the College of Health Sciences will provide health and mental health education in the areas of nutrition (Maria Duarte), environmental safety (Gabriel Ibarra), ear and mouth health (Speech Language Pathology Department), diabetes (Maria Duarte), and hand strength (Occupational Therapy Department).

On June 6, the Centennial Museum will host “La Salud Empieza en el Campo,” an event for the center’s migrant workers, where they will tour the “Nuestra Casa” exhibit at the museum and learn about tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.  

“This is our way of celebrating them,” Villalobos said. “One of the things we find is that they’re a group of people who do so much for the U.S. and our community and they are so ignored; nobody really gives them the credit that they deserve.”