02/17/2012 06:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012 Addressing Rampant Depression Throughout Undocumented Communities

By: Robyn Gee

Tracking 11 million undocumented persons in a country is tough. But one professor, Dr. Roberto Gonzales, tried to do exactly that. And he found some surprising trends.

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"They recounted numerous instances of not being able to get out of bed, having ulcers, being stressed out, worrying all the time about getting caught, toothaches, headaches, problems sleeping, trouble eating and thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide," Gonzales said in an interview with Turnstyle News.

The mental and emotional health of undocumented people is slowly making its way into the national immigration conversation. In recent cases, lawyers have tried to use mental health concerns as grounds for a judge to permit a client to stay in the U.S.

One of these cases involved 22-year-old Yanelli Serrano Hernandez, an undocumented young person, who attempted suicide twice in the U.S. Her defense lawyers argued that not only was she not a threat to her community, but that sending her back to Mexico put her life at risk. Nevertheless, she was deported on January 31, 2012.

Marco Saavedra, 22, is also undocumented and struggled with depression growing up, as did his mother and sister. But he was inspired by Hernandez's case to get involved in immigration rights issues. He is currently a youth organizer at the National Immigration Youth Alliance (NIYA) in Ohio, in a neighboring county to where Hernandez was detained.

Saavedra found that organizing with other youth actually helps him deal with his depression. "It's true of me and a lot of our youth organizers at NIYA, that we suffered depression because we couldn't wrap our minds around what our futures looked like. Through organizing I found a way to address the preoccupation of depression. By just living in the struggle day to day you get lost behind your own needs... you forget to see the bigger picture," said Saavedra.

Saavedra, along with other organizers from NIYA, started a website called, in honor of Hernandez. The goal of the site is to create a network for undocumented people to find resources and realize that they are not alone in their mental health struggles.

Oftentimes, undocumented people are unaware of mental health resources, according to Saavedra. And one of the website's campaigns is to get people to provide their narratives of successful treatment. "If they're a cancer survivor, or have been treated for dialysis, if they're willing to write down their story and explain where they got help, they could share knowledge and resources with others," he said. The site does not offer professional help, but offers informal advice, resources and support.

Saavedra hopes that in future, some sort of "health asylum" will exist for undocumented people. "Now if your life is in mortal danger, then you will be allowed to stay in the U.S. Maybe the argument can be made if your health is in really severe peril, if you get deported... it could be another avenue. We'll just see..." said Saavedra.

Dr. Gonzales thinks a health asylum is a good place to start. He says that there are around 1.2 million undocumented children growing up in the U.S. right now, in arguably harsher immigration conditions than in previous generations, referring to new laws in Alabama and Arizona.  "With some of these very negative contexts, we'll see a greater number of young people who are at risk for negative mental and physical health outcomes," he said.

Gonzales said that undocumented status is not something that is talked about in childhood  and because of this, undocumented children often grow up in a bubble of normalcy. "They go to prom, they grow up watching Barney and the Power Rangers, they eat pizza... but our laws treat children and adults very differently, and don't account for the continuity of children becoming adults," he said.

Gonzales conducted 150 life-history interviews with young adults between the ages of 20 - 34, called the West Coast Undocumented Young Adults Research Project. The goal was to paint a fuller picture of the growing-up experiences and adult trajectories of young people who arrive in the U.S. without citizenship.

He found that the critical point that triggers mental health issues for a young undocumented person is when they transition out of childhood. "This transition is a movement from feeling a sense of belonging and inclusion in childhood and early adolescence to an adult life that is saturated with barriers and possibilities for apprehension and deportation," he said.

Once a young person hits their late teenage years, several rites of passage are blocked off, like getting a driver's license, finding summer jobs and applying for college financial aid. "It doesn't happen in a vacuum; it happens at the same time their friends are moving forward," said Gonzales.  At this point, their daily routines become secrets from some of their closest friends. "They are continually having to swallow disappointment and also come up with excuses -- why they weren't going out with their friends, why they are taking the bus instead of driving," said Gonzales.

Gonzales said as more information slowly surfaces about the undocumented population, he hopes to see these mental health issues addressed.

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