Detaining Migrant Children Could Lead To Elevated Suicide Risk

Texas suicide lawyerYouth in our nation could lose their lives

Much has been made of the current administration’s decision to detain migrant children – in fact, the administration recently moved to detain children with their families indefinitely, according to ABC News.

That’s troubling for a host of reasons, the least of which is that putting children in detention facilities has been linked to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health problems that can lead to an elevated risk of suicide.

There is much we don’t know – but what we do know isn’t good

As the New York Times reports, child psychologists and human development experts have raised the alarm about the conditions migrant children face in detention facilities. Even the best institutional setting, the Times says, is a poor substitute for a family.

Children need personal connections, stability and consistency in order to thrive, and a detention facility can provide none of those things. Turnover is high among the adult staff, who may be detached and impersonal. Each adult in such a setting is responsible for a large number of children, further limiting the amount of attention each child can receive. In short, detained children – especially migrants in an unfamiliar place and with potential language barriers – are left to long for the care they need, which may not come for a long time, if at all.

In addition to the pure psychological issues, being in a detention facility or institutional setting at an early age can lead to health issues, such as heart disease, later in life. Those physical health issues, in turn, can lead to co-occurring mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, deadly eating disorders, and elevated risk of death by suicide.

The true long-term consequences of being in detention facilities are harder to predict, but the damage is real. Research suggests that a longer stay at a later age may require the longest recovery period. Some children may prove to be more resilient than others, but every child who is detained is at risk.

A glimmer of hope: potential for growth

Shocking and terrible experiences, such as being placed in a detention facility, have a deep and profound effect on the mind. In far too many cases, that effect is permanently damaging, leaving scars that never fully heal – and may later be realized in a death by suicide. But there is potential for survivors to emerge stronger than before, and our hope is to see that potential realized.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is the idea that victims of trauma can discover new personal strength, deeper meaning in life and a stronger sense of purpose. According to an NBC News article on the topic, PTG is not the opposite of PTSD; rather, it can happen alongside post-traumatic stress as the victim finds new ways to cope. And it’s more common than you might think – one study showed that 30 to 70 percent of trauma survivors report at least one sign of PTG.

While post-traumatic growth still needs substantial additional research, research suggests that children as young as seven can and do experience PTG – and that there are practical steps adult caregivers can take to nurture them along the way, such as:

  • Hearing out a traumatized child’s thoughts and feelings without judgment
  • Helping them to understand and process the meaning of traumatic events in a supportive setting.
  • Narrative exposure therapy – a clinical technique that encourages survivors to create personally meaningful stories of their experience – can also move children (and adults) on the road toward post-traumatic growth.

It’s possible, even in the darkest of times, to find opportunities to grow and build resilience that will protect the survivor against future mental health issues and the potential risk of death by suicide. But in order to protect these children and help them to find new meaning after trauma, we first need to stop subjecting them to additional trauma, either by reuniting them with their families or finding them new, supportive homes. And then we need to make an immediate and sustained investment in the mental health services and resources they need.

Early intervention is the key to suicide prevention, most of all among those who have experienced severe trauma. These children deserve nothing less.

The collective wisdom of this country knows everything detailed in this blog.  Why do stupid things that hurt children?  What is the point?

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