Acculturative Stress in Immigrants

Given the heightened levels of anti-immigration sentiments permeating the United States over the past few years, Peoples of Color who also happen to be immigrants or who are children of immigrants are faced with yet another burden that researchers have called “acculturative stress”: an additional type of psychological stress that is faced by immigrants and their descendants. For example, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2016 report, Hispanic people – who have been at the center of the national immigration debate and have been the target of anti-immigration rhetoric – experience the highest stress levels even compared to other marginalized social groups, possibly attesting to the added stress brought onto them by an anti-immigrant social climate.

This is not to say, however, that only Hispanic people experience acculturative stress. For instance, the fact that only 24% of eligible Koreans, 26% of eligible Filipinos, and 28% of eligible Asian Indians applied for DACA during its first two years suggest that Asian immigrants also carry such an intense level of fear and mistrust that they would not even come out of the shadows to sign up for a program that was supposed to help them.

Acculturative stress is the level of psychosocial strain experienced by immigrants and their descendants in response to the immigration-related challenges (stressors) that they encounter as they adapt to life in a new country. Scientific research has consistently shown that immigrants (and their descendants) who experience more acculturative stress are also more likely to experience psychological distress, lower levels of life satisfaction, more anxiety and depression symptoms, and are more likely to think about suicide. Research also shows that specific types of acculturative stress – such as worrying about their families, being away from their families, and living in a climate that has strong anti-immigrant sentiments – are especially related to psychological distress, anxiety, and depression among immigrants.

This is particularly true for immigrant children as well, as research shows that immigrant high school students’ experiences of discrimination (from adults and peers in their schools) are related to more depression symptoms. Immigrant high school students who worry about their immigration status also tend to have lower vocational or career expectations and see more barriers to college. There are also indications that the anti-immigrant climate is negatively affecting immigrant students at school, with increased tardiness or absences, more difficulty concentrating, poorer grades, more bullying, getting into fights, having recurring nightmares, eating disturbances, and feeling vague body aches being mentioned as some of the ways through which immigrant students’ acculturative stress may manifest. The children of immigrants also experience heightened stress, and many suffer from anxiety symptoms as they constantly worry about the potential deportation of their immigrant parents or their immigrant parents’ pending visa applications.

In addition to acculturative stress, which has been a form of chronic stress for immigrants, for example, in DACA decisions, adds yet another serious stressor to DACA recipients – the very real threat that they might be separated from their families again. According to APA President, Dr. Antonio E. Puente:

“Research shows that the displacement of children from their home countries at an early age can have long-lasting, negative consequences for their cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. The President’s decision to end the DACA program compounds the risk to their health and well-being by separating them from their families once again. Research affirms that forced parent-child separation is a traumatic event that can adversely affect the mental health of children and their families. As psychologists, we are committed to policies that keep families together.”