Anti-immigrant sentiment and immigrant mental distress

Serious psychological distress doubles for new U.S. immigrants.


The new UCLA policy brief shows significant mental health disparities among immigrant groups in California. Recent immigrants residing in the U.S. for less than five years experienced a 140% increase in severe psychological distress, from 5% (2015–17) to 12% (2019–21).

This distress, encompassing severe mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, is exacerbated by anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. The disparities highlight the urgent need for targeted mental health support within immigrant communities.

The mental distress among adult immigrants as a whole increased by 50%, rising from 6% to 9%, according to the UCLA brief, utilizing data from the 2015–21 California Health Interview Survey (CHIS). Surprisingly, these negative mental health trends persist despite California’s generally favorable stance toward immigrants.

A 2023 California Public Policy Institute report revealed that almost 80% of adults acknowledge the benefits immigrants bring to the state. Additionally, in 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law to facilitate healthcare access for immigrants, irrespective of their citizenship status.

Sean Tan, senior public administration analyst at the center and one of the brief’s authors, said, “Even in the most culturally diverse state in the nation, immigrants are still experiencing serious psychological distress, especially immigrants who came to the United States more recently.”

Data from 2015–17 served as a baseline, comparing it to 2019–21 to gauge the impact of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. Previous research indicates that discrimination, such as anti-immigrant rhetoric and restrictive policies, worsens health disparities for marginalized groups.

The study, led by Tan at UCLA, suggests a link between national discourse and mental health, emphasizing the role of immigrant status as a social driver of health. Notably, distress increases were lower for English-proficient and legally permanent adult immigrants.

Among immigrants, English-speaking individuals showed no increase in severe psychological distress. At the same time, those with limited English proficiency experienced a 33% rise (from 6% to 8%), and proficient English speakers saw a 67% increase (from 6% to 10%). Naturalized citizens reported a 33% increase, green card holders had an 83% increase, and non-green card holders witnessed a 71% increase in severe psychological distress.

Adding to the stress of anti-immigrant rhetoric, 67% of distressed immigrants did not seek mental health care from 2019 to 2021. Familiarity with U.S. social systems influenced mental health care seeking, with recent immigrants, noncitizens, and non-English speakers reporting higher unmet needs than their counterparts.

To address barriers to mental health care, the report suggests enhancing access for all Californians, irrespective of citizenship. Recommendations include adopting trauma-informed practices, like trauma systems therapy for refugees, to address distress from immigration-related stressors. Embracing technological advances like telehealth and diversifying the mental health workforce with lay providers are also recommended to improve accessibility and cultural relevance.

The study emphasizes the urgent need to address mental health disparities among immigrants. It underscores the impact of anti-immigrant sentiment on the well-being of recent immigrants. The recommendations aim to pave the way for inclusive and accessible mental health care for all, promoting the overall mental health of immigrant populations.


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