IMPACT
11/19/2014 05:41 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2014

Legal Issues Aren't The Biggest Problem Facing Young People Crossing The Mexico-U.S. Border -- It's PTSD

With much of the border crisis conversation in recent years focusing on the legal situation surrounding children flooding the Mexico-U.S. border, one ascending figure goes underreported: the growing PTSD epidemic amongst migrant youth.

According to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border from Mexico to the United States is set to increase dramatically. Thousands of minors as young as four spend months making the 1,000-mile journey from Central America, risking violence, abduction, hunger, harsh environments and death to escape hostilities in their home countries.

"We experienced a lack of water; many times we even had to eat grass," José Luis Zelaya, a former child migrant and now a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University, said on HuffPost Live. "We had to sleep in mountains, facing animals such as scorpions or snakes. Whenever it rains, there is not an umbrella. You just [have to] keep walking."

Zelaya, 27, made the dangerous journey from Honduras to Texas when he was just 13 years old. Although the physical toll he suffered was extreme -- he describes losing all of his toenails from the many miles of walking -- psychological trauma from both the "rampant violence" in his home country and the hardships of migration at such a young age would also leave its mark.

"The biggest issue we deal with is post-traumatic stress disorder," said Dr. Arturo Gonzalez, an Arizona-based pediatrician who treats child migrants. "They're physically fit, interestingly enough, but trauma is there."

Children who manage to make it to the border and attempt to cross illegally are often held in detention centers, essentially jails with unsuitable conditions for young kids.

"The whole system is not made for children. That's what's really shocking -- to have 30, 40 kids, little girls, in a room together by themselves," Executive Vice President and COO of Save the Children Carlos Carrazana told HuffPost Live. "I believe the border patrol is doing the best they can. They are just not equipped to handle the crisis."

These young migrants face other roadblocks in their transition, such as strict security measures, lack of legal knowledge and language barriers. Investing in their health and rehabilitation may help more to follow the same path as Zelaya, who reunited with his family in Texas and was able to pursue a successful education.

"If we give these children the resources and they treat them the way I've been treated, they too can become what I've become," Zelaya told HuffPost Live. "I'm just an example. This is what America is all about."

Watch the full conversation on the trauma of migration for young people in the video above.

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