When we (Americans) think of the immigrant experience we imagine perhaps peoples riding atop of trains or walking through extreme circumstances (deserts or snow covered mountains) or stuffed inside of 18-wheel trailers. Rarely to we think about the living experience of immigrants. And I wonder to the degree that psychologists or doctors really think about and investigate or offer services in the United States to our undocumented immigrants. The Nicaraguan experience in Costa Rica has opened my eyes.
In an interview with Tatiana the psychologist I learned that in addition to the regular health problems the immigrant populations suffer, the most under studied is mental health. Tatiana began working with the FIMRC clinic 4 years ago as a student during a university project that studied the immigrants. Then after graduation FIMRC invited her to work 3 days a week in the clinic. An impassioned psychologist Tatiana loves her work and is eager to share problems that is community faces. She explained to me that the immigrant experience particular to Costa Rica involves very serious mental health problems. The Nicaraguan population comes to San José for work undocumented and they come either pregnant or become pregnant in Costa Rica. Nicaragua is a country with extreme poverty and the closest solution for many is to immigrate to Costa Rica. The school systems are better and the children born in Costa Rica will qualify for social security. Once the babies are born they spend the first year with the parents in the slums then the mothers send the children back to Nicaragua to live with grandparents until the children are 7 years old. The children will spend 6 years without their parents. At that point the children return to Costa Rica for school. The years of estrangement and then being thrust into a strange environment is traumatic for the children.
Let’s begin with the housing situation. La Alajuelita is full of squatter homes where as many as 20 people will live in one room. Children will sleep in beds full of other children and will be left in the homes with older siblings they do not know or with uncles they do not know. There is a great deal of sexual abuse of children with this type of situation. The abuse, however, goes unnoticed. The children remain silent and the effects manifest in many traumatic ways. This is the dark secret of the slums.
Tatiana explained that she sees children with behavioral problems, psychosis, some children are psychotic, depressed, are suicidal, have OCD, experience hallucinations, have violent tendencies, and Asperger’s Syndrome. She explains that most of these mental health issues are products of environment and says that if she is able to have contact with the child before the age of 7 years old then there is hope for helping to correct some of the major problems. Obviously, the solution lies within the community to change its habits, which are wholly destructive to the children of La Alajuelita.
For the sake of space I will wait to talk about a couple of specific cases in a later blog.