Anxiety About Family Deportations Is Depriving Latinx Teenagers Of Sleep

U.S.-born teenage children of Mexican and Central American immigrants have been losing sleep since the 2016 election, thanks to worries about the impact of U.S. immigration policies on their families.

In a new study from the University of California – Berkeley, nearly half of the teenage participants reported they worry “at least sometimes” about how U.S. immigration policy might affect their families. Those with greater worries also experienced higher anxiety and poorer sleep quality.

“This is a very real concern, unfortunately, and many people are losing sleep due to the unknown,” Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychologist at Seasons in Malibu who was unaffiliated with the study, told Mattress Clarity via email.

This sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on the wellbeing of Latinx teenagers (teenagers of Latin American descent). “Sleep deprivation can cause a decrease in concentration, GI issues, sleep and eating issues, anger, fatigue, depression, and more,” Irwin said.

The study concluded that both current immigration policy and rhetoric surrounding immigrants is associated with adverse mental health outcomes among Latinx youth. Mattress Clarity reached out to the study’s authors but did not hear back.

RELATED: Discrimination Could Be Linked To Poor Sleep Quality In Teens

Immigration policy
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Impacts Of Immigration Policy And Rhetoric

The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Pediatrics, set out to examine whether concerns about immigration policy might be associated with poorer mental and physical health among U.S. citizen children of Latinx immigrants.

The researchers examined a cohort of 397 U.S.-born teenagers in California who were the children of at least one Mexican or Central American immigrant; the documentation status of these parents was unknown. The data was drawn from the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, a long-term study of Mexican farmworker families in California’s Salinas Valley region.

Members of this cohort participated in a health assessment at age 14 (before the 2016 presidential election) and at age 16 (after the election). The assessment included measurements of blood pressure, body mass index, and self-reported data about concerns over immigration policy, depression, anxiety, and sleep quality. The study also collected similar self-reported data from participants’ mothers.

The researchers found that nearly half of the teenage participants reported worrying at least sometimes about the personal consequences of U.S. immigration policy, including family separation resulting from deportation and the threat of being reported to the immigration office.

Those participants with greater worries also reported higher anxiety and depression and poorer sleep quality. Anxiety significantly increased after the 2016 presidential election, especially among participants in the most vulnerable families.

In their writeup of the study, the researchers pointed out that the study participants reside in California, which is a sanctuary state — so it’s possible that children in other states might be even more adversely affected.

Man with anxiety can't sleepamenic181/Shutterstock

Anxiety And Sleep

Per Irwin, it makes sense that anxiety about family deportations might contribute to sleep deprivation.

Anxiety can lead to being hyper-alert, meaning one is stuck in fight-flight mode,” she told us. ”This allows us to feel like we are ready to handle any situation, but in actuality, it strips the adrenal glands and overtaxes the central nervous system. One feels afraid to sleep, which would make them unable to tackle the danger at hand. Staying in this mode for weeks or months on hand… depletes the body’s immune system and can lead to a host of psychological disturbances and physical ailments.”

Martha Lewis, a sleep expert and creator of the Complete Sleep Solution, who was also unaffiliated with the study, concurs.

“When you’re anxious, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol,” she told Mattress Clarity. “Cortisol suppresses melatonin, our sleepy hormone. So if you’re constantly anxious about your family being deported, you’re going to have a hard time sleeping as that cortisol circulating throughout your body is going to keep you awake.”

Additionally, Irwin points out that Latinx children of immigrant parents also have to contend with rhetoric that undermines their and their family’s sense of self-worth.

“On top of all mentioned above, the feelings of inferiority, or not being wanted or “good enough” to be in the U.S., erodes the self-esteem,” she said.

The study’s authors intend to follow up with the study participants at the age of 18 to assess whether the spike in anxiety that was observed following the 2016 election has continued. The new research will also examine teens’ academic performance and look at whether they’re participating in high-risk behaviors.

RELATED: Could A Lack Of Sleep Lead To Risky Behavior In Teens

Featured image: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

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Laura Newcomer

Laura Newcomer is the Editorial Controller at Mattress Clarity, where she occasionally writes sleep news. She's worked as a professional writer and editor for over a decade and has been published in or on outlets such as TIME, Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Women's Health, and many more. Her primary areas of interest include sleep, fitness, nutrition, eco-friendly living, education, and all things wellness.