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10 Reasons Why the Southern Border Crisis is Worse Than You Think – Plus What We Can Do to Help

Originally published on June 2019

By Tasha Jackson, MA, MFT

If you follow the news, you’ve probably watched in horror as the humanity crisis has unfolded at our southern border. It’s shocking to see this cruel practice happening so openly in the United States—it is nothing like we’ve seen here since the Japanese internment camps during World War II. As the purported “moral leader” of the world, this inhumane treatment of asylum-seeking migrants (and especially young children) will be a stain on our nation, forever. As a psychotherapist and a mother of two children, I must point out that the pain and suffering facing migrant children at the US/Mexican border is even worse than you realize—because as much media coverage as this humanity crisis is attracting, few people are considering the mental health care implications, which are potentially immense.

As a professional psychotherapist, I want to take a minute to explain the many ways these (let’s just call them what they are) “for-profit immigrant concentration camps” are threatening the long-term psychological health of thousands of detained children. Before we start, understand this is an incomplete list, which only focuses on the mental health implications of this practice. For many, I know this is a painful issue to even discuss, so take a deep breathe with me as I describe some of the mental health threats that our government is exposing thousands of innocent children to on a minute-by-minute basis.

  • It’s the Definition of Abuse—I have not personally evaluated any asylum-seeking children myself but if the conditions of these centers had been reported to me in my psychotherapy office, I (like all psychotherapists) would be legally obligated to break client confidentiality and call Child Protective Services to report the behavior. That is a fact. I only say this because it may not be obvious to casual observers, so let me erase any doubt—this treatment at-minimum qualifies as “neglect,” which is a form of child abuse. Reports coming in last year, also leads me to suspect that emotional and physical abuse is rampant in these detention camps. So, let’s not mince words with people who believe this treatment is humane. It’s not. It is the definition of child abuse. Full stop.

  • Trauma and Trust Issues – As children, we learn to trust (or not) by how we relate to our primary caregiver(s). So, it’s vital that we have at least one constant attachment figure growing up. This lays the groundwork for how we connect to others in future relationships. So, separating a young child from a parent can threaten their sense of security, and ability to trust. When that attachment is abruptly interrupted, it can be traumatic, and our border policy is most certainly doing that to every detained child. When one caregiver is not present, especially with pre-verbal children, they can struggle to form healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.

  • Offering No Hope of Movement – Having no home for an extended period, while also having no hope that you (soon) may be moving on to a safe home has a bigger psychological impact than people realize. Data suggests people who experience (potentially) traumatic events recover faster if they “have a sense of movement towards a safe home.” This has been cited by researchers (Dr. Van der Kolk) as one of the main reasons why there are fewer long term cases of PTSD after 9/11, than we saw after Hurricane Katrina, where thousands and thousands of people lost their homes forever. Border camps offer little hope of movement for detained children. We tell them they’ll be separated for 72 hours, and then hold them for three weeks, or more. This cruel policy offers the exact opposite of hope for these children, by intention. Our country wants these people to suffer for daring to seek asylum here. This is unconscionable. Full stop.

  • Trauma is Different for Children — When children are exposed to trauma it affects them very differently than adults. It sets them up for future struggles with relationships, and their overall focus on important matters. Unlike adults, children exposed to trauma are also more likely to suffer from the inability to regulate their emotions, where they feel stuck in a feeling and are unable to soothe themselves, or move past it. This can have big future implications as it often leads to self-harming behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse.

  • Developing a Sense of Self – Children are wildly perceptive, often forming the lens in which they see themselves and the world, by looking at how others see them. Neglect and abuse delivers a doubly painful message to these young children that they’re not worth anyone’s attention. By withholding basic human amenities like clean clothes, toothbrushes, showers, blankets, etc. these kids are being told they are worthless. What impact does that have on their sense of self? 

  • A Child's Brain Cannot Take the Stress – All brains are malleable and can be affected by ‘neuroplasticity,’ which is our ability to re-mold our way of perceiving life throughout our lifetime. This is how adults make big changes in their lives. But a child's brain is very different from an adult’s because it’s still developing. Unlike adults, a child's mind is ill-equipped to handle traumatic stresses like being separated from parents and stuck in a cage alone for weeks on end. Forget the mental and physical abuse for a moment, and the stress simply coming from the separation and neglect can threaten a vulnerable brain so much that it grows into a permanently hypervigilant state, possibly for a lifetime.

  • Kids May Face an Equally Dark Future—The more trauma these children experience now, the more susceptible they are as adults to experience anxiety, depression, addiction, and many other mental health problems. Research shows the more incidents of adverse childhood events an individual faces, the more negative outcomes they will likely face later in life. So, what futures are we setting these children up for? If you listen to research, the answer is likely an equally traumatic one full of more negative outcomes. 

  • Asylum Seekers Are Already Stressed Out— Asylum-seekers have unique stressor because many of them are escaping from extremely traumatic backgrounds before they even arrive at our border. Similar to the above point, the more trauma (a child or adult) has experienced in the past, the more susceptible they are to experience another event just as traumatizing in the future, and develop disorders like PTSD.

  • Parentification — Detained children are either being told by border guards (or taking it upon themselves) to take care of other younger children in custody. This is a mind-bogglingly wrong practice. Children should not be put into a parental role, ever. For most kids, being a child’s caregiver is too stressful of a job as they’re simply not mentally (or emotionally) equipped to be burdened with this responsibility. Not to mention, older kids cannot provide younger children with adequate care—they are kids! We should not be ‘fine’ with detained children taking care of other children as it’s not healthy for either child. Again, full stop.

  • Sensory Deprivation Is Real – Touch can provide a sense of safety, trust, and offer people non-verbal ways of communicating compassion to others. Children, especially preverbal children and toddlers, communicate a great deal through touch, and other sensory receptors. With touch being cut off for these kids, I am extremely concerned how this is impacting them mentally. We cannot allow these young children to be neglected physically and emotionally. It’s an institutionally criminal practice and should make any parent reading this want to do their part to stop it immediately.

After fully-absorbing this information, I hope you can see how a child's brain is so much more vulnerable to trauma and is just not equipped to manage this level of stress. We are asking too much of them, and it must end. I know this story was not a breeze to read—believe me, it was also painful to write—but as a professional, I simply had to do my part to help shine-a-light on all the many mental health challenges these children are facing now, and will likely face after they are released, maybe, for the rest of their lives.

If you feel compelled to act here are some resources you can use to get started. As a psychotherapist and mother who has been deeply affected by this, I hope you will join me in letting your voice be heard, and do whatever we can to stop these border concentration camps from ruining more children’s lives. Our country is better than this. We must be better, or I am no longer sure what country I am living in. Look around, do you know anymore?

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