Chronic stress and fear affect health of our children

Appeared in Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star on July 27, 2014
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

Rolando* is a 12 year old U.S. citizen, born in Harlingen, to an immigrant mother who was raped at the age of 15 and journeyed north from her home town in the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico when she became pregnant with Rolando.

Shamed by her family and pregnancy, she came to work caring for other people’s babies and cleaning their homes here in the Valley. Rolando suffers from asthma which is exacerbated by poor, moldy conditions in the tiny, leaky camper-trailer where he lives with his mother.

At his young age he has also had a stomach ulcer and entering puberty is becoming more overweight and has high blood pressure, all conditions associated with stress. He loves to play soccer but his mom doesn’t have a car so he can’t get to practice and although he is willing to walk the 2 miles to the park, his mom doesn’t feel safe letting him go alone.

She is afraid to leave the trailer other than to go to work in the home of the family who employs her cleaning, cooking and caring for their baby allowing her to bring home $150 dollars after 6 long days of work each week. They rent the trailer from a man who scares Rolando. He has threatened to call immigration on several occasions when his mom didn’t have enough money for the rent—like the time his asthma landed Rolando in the hospital and she had to miss work for a week.

The landlord makes inappropriate comments to his mother and leans in close, pinning her against the wall when he talks to her, alcohol always on his breath. Rolando gets so angry sometimes he wants to do something to this man to protect his mom. But the fear of her being taken away, deported, outweighs his frustration at seeing her abused. Until a school nurse connected him to the clinic, Rolando’s mom didn’t have any way to get his asthma medication, and so this condition which is relatively easily controlled with treatment, kept him home from school too many days and he was held back a year.

Rolando is a bright kid, and teachers say he can do well in school, but he is so frustrated by his situation that his stomach hurts a lot because he is always so afraid for his mom. “I’m scared one day I’ll come home and the Migra will have taken her away. I’ve never been to Mexico and I wouldn’t know what to do or where to go.”

At the Brownsville Community Health Center, pediatrician Dr. Marsha Griffin encounters patients in situations similar to Rolando’s on a daily basis. When you meet Griffin, it doesn’t take more than a few moments to recognize her passion to advocate for children and families. Although her mannerisms are soft and polite, her energy and focus is fierce when it comes to children’s advocacy and health. She believes the role of a physician goes far beyond diagnosing medical conditions and writing prescriptions.

“So many families in our community still don’t have access to basic health care, either because they can’t afford it, are unaware of what is available, or because the system is too daunting, and they are afraid. How can we call ourselves a “First World Country” when so many of our hard-working neighbors worry about finding adequate housing, having enough food to eat or access to basic primary healthcare.

They lose sleep worrying about the threat of violence on their family members left in Mexico and the threat of their own deportation. For centuries, many of our families have been locked into poverty because of rampant wage theft and illegal hiring practices along the border. The Valley cannot fully prosper, if it is forever trying to do so on the backs of our neighbors.”

We live in a great country and a great community. We have a responsibility to make sure all children and families thrive, for their own sake and for the sake of our future as a nation.”

Not one to stand idly by, Griffin believes that physicians, along with the rest of us, should be involved in addressing issues of social justice which are clearly and directly tied to health. So, in addition to her work treating children day in and day out at the clinic, she advocates at the local and national level on behalf of children’s health.

She created a program to bring medical students and residents to the U.S.-Mexico border to learn about the unique issues families and children are facing here.

“We believe this makes them better physicians. The training program takes them out of hospitals and clinics and into the community, where they become students of the community. They work hand in hand with colonia leaders, attorneys, promotoras and community based organizations on projects or issues the local residents have identified as critical barriers to healthy lives. Community for Children is a training program sponsored by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and its Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, that brings future physicians from all over the U.S., Canada, and as far away as Israel, to learn about life’s challenges here in the Valley.

This professional development program has created a network of Community for Children alumni who continue working individually and together on behalf of marginalized children. Their focus recently has been children who living in fear in border communities.

“One of the biggest issues along the border is that many of our families have mixed immigration status. They are hardworking folks who may have children born here or may have been born here themselves, but have other family members who were not. This creates a culture of fear and stress for large groups of children, some afraid to go out in public, some who may have an abusive citizen father threatening to deport their mother, others who are “Dreamers”, those brought to this country as infants and toddlers through no choice of their own and now grown up here in limbo status, unable to legally work or study, and Central American refugee children who have been detained by immigration (1,500 a day in our Cameron County alone), after long journeys alone to escape horrendous violence and abject poverty in their own country.

These children have lived and traveled in areas where warring drug cartels have created environments of terror and killing fields. Although their journeys north riding on the top of trains can maim and kill, it is often the only option for ultimate survival.

Griffin and colleagues have published articles on the subject of the effect of chronic stress and fear on the health of children living in these circumstances (Griffin et al; Pediatrics April 7, 2014).

“We have plenty of research on the effects of chronic fear and stress on a child’s health, resulting in conditions such as obesity, depression/anxiety and even immune-system disorders. We need to get creative about addressing the huge issue of chronic fear that grips thousands of our neighbors. We can no longer turn to Band-Aids, but need to bring together leaders to create child-friendly policies and environments that value the lives and rights of all human beings.”

In fact at a Valentine’s Day gathering this year, 55 representatives from 17 institutions in the Rio Grande Valley made a commitment to address the stress and fear affecting our families through school-based initiatives, religious initiatives, media messages, public spaces and access to information and resources. “Putting the priority on human rights for all folks is key to a thriving, healthy, prosperous place to live.

These children are our future. They are precious and deserve our attention. I know that we as a community and a nation can do better,” because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).

*Name has been changed.