Psychosocial Stressors, Psychiatric Diagnoses and Utilization of Mental Health Services Among Undocumented Immigrant Latinos

UMMS Affiliation

Department of Psychiatry



Document Type


Medical Subject Headings

Hispanic Americans; Emigrants and Immigrants; Mental Health Services


Health Services Research | Mental and Social Health | Psychiatric and Mental Health | Psychiatry | Psychiatry and Psychology


The combined effects of minority status, specific ethnic group experiences (political, economic, trauma and immigration history), poverty, and illegal status pose a set of unique psychiatric risks for undocumented Latinos in the United States. Restrictive legislation and policy measures have limited access to health care, and other basic human services to undocumented immigrants and their children throughout the nation. However, little is known about the patterns of mental health care use, psychiatric diagnoses and psychosocial problems prevalent among the undocumented who do succeed in presenting to clinical settings and to the mental health sector. To begin to address the need for further understanding in this area, we completed a clinical chart review of 197 outpatient adult psychiatric charts in a Latino mental health outpatient treatment program located in an urban hospital system.

We compared the diagnoses and mental health care use of undocumented Latino immigrants (15%) with that of documented (73%) and US born Latinos (12%) treated in this clinical setting. The undocumented Latinos in our study were more likely to have a diagnosis of anxiety, adjustment and alcohol abuse disorders. The undocumented also had a significantly greater mean number of concurrent psychosocial stressors (mean number = 5, p < .001) ascompared to documented immigrants and US born groups, which both had a mean number of 3 stressors identified at evaluation. The undocumented were more likely to have psychosocial problems related to occupation, access to healthcare and the legal system. However, the undocumented had a lower mean number of total mental health appointments attended (mean visits = 4.3, p < .001) in which to address these stressors as compared to documented immigrants (mean visits = 7.9) and US born (mean visits = 13.3). In terms of other previous mental health service use, the undocumented group had lower rates of lifetime inpatient and outpatient treatment use.

The results of this study suggest the importance of early assessment of psychosocial stressors, substance use and barriers to care when treating undocumented immigrants. Although all Latino groups included in this investigation demonstrated numerable concurrent stressors, our investigation highlights the particular importance of accessible social services and supports for addressing psychosocial stressors in the lives of undocumented patients. Our results stress the importance of reexamining policies, that restrict access to social services and healthcare for the undocumented. Our results also suggest the importance of culturally appropriate evaluation and treatment of substance abuse disorders as well as addressing other psychological and behavioral responses to multiple stressors among undocumented individuals.

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Citation: Perez, M. Carmela; Fortuna, Lisa. "Psychosocial Stressors, Psychiatric Diagnoses and Utilization of Mental Health Services Among Undocumented Immigrant Latinos" Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Services 3.1 (2005), p. 107-123. DOI 10.1300/J191v03n01_06