Doctors: Trump’s Border Separation Policy Is Causing a ‘Mental Health Crisis’ for Families

A Honduran mother holds her son, 7, after she turned her family in to U.S. Border Patrol agents near Rio Grande City, Texas.
Photograph by John Moore—Getty Images

For weeks, a chorus of protesters, religious groups, Democrats, and others have spoken out against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants from their families. Now they are finding a vocal ally: medical professionals.

The American Psychological Association wrote an open letter to Donald Trump imploring his administration to reconsider the policy and to “commit to the more humane practice of housing families together pending immigration proceedings to protect them from further trauma.” The letter cited a “mental health crisis” many families are suffering because of the administration’s policy.

The APA’s letter outlined several adverse outcomes the policy may have that could lead to long-lasting psychological damage, including stress and emotional trauma. “Sudden and unexpected family separation, such as separating families at the border, can add to that stress, leading to emotional trauma in children,” it said. “Research also suggests that the longer that parents and children are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression are for children.”

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that the U.S. government has separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents in a little more than two months as part of the Trump administration’s policy on immigration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said the separations are intended as a deterrence to illegal immigration.

Also on Friday, the American Public Health Association issued its own statement decrying the separation of children from families as “inhumane,” warning it would have “a dire impact on their health, both now and into the future.”

The APHA said the trauma from such separation could lead to alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, obesity, and suicide. “More alarming is the interruption of these children’s chance at achieving a stable childhood,” the APHA said. “Decades of public health research has shown that family structure, stability and environment are key social determinants of a child’s and the communities health.”

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics also spoke out in reaction to a House immigration bill drafted this week and expected to be put up for a vote next week. “Instead of putting children first by ending the harmful policy of family separation at the border once and for all, this legislation strips children of protections designed for their safety and well-being and exposes more children, not fewer, to detention, including long-term detention,” the AAP said in a statement.

“We must remember that immigrant children are still children. Protections for children in law or by the courts exist because children are uniquely vulnerable and are at high risk for trauma, trafficking, and violence,” the statement said.

In recent weeks, a number of leaders in the medical profession have individually spoken out after visiting facilities housing children who were separated from their parents at the border. The American College of Physicians issued its objection to the practice on May 31.

Reports about the way government officials have handled the separations have also fueled the outrage, including an infant who was seized from her mother during breastfeeding, as well as a woman seeking asylum who chronicled the trauma of being separated from her child. In its letter, the APA also cited incidents of adult trauma, such as a Honduran man who killed himself after being separated from his wife and child.

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