Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches and Lectures


Mental Health Problems in Refugee Children: Learning from International Research and Research with Immigrant Minors in the United States

Event Title

2019 NPLA (National Latinx Psychological Association) Conference

Event Location

Miami, Florida, USA

Document Type


Presentation Date


Date Range

2019-10-17 to 2019-10-20


In the last two decades, there has been a substantial increase of unaccompanied immigrant minors (UIM) from Central America migrating into the United States. In 2018 the number of UIMs apprehended at the border totaled 50,036, with 35,898 apprehended in March, just in the span of 2019 (U.S. Customs and Border, 2019). Due to the severe stressors (e.g., abuse and sexual exploitation) that this vulnerable population endures before, during, and after their migration experience, the existing literature has suggested that UIMs from Central America are at an increased risk of adverse mental health outcomes. However, very little research has evaluated mental health outcomes among this population due to the difficulties of acquiring consent from a parental figure. Thus, the purpose of this literature review is to examine the rates of mental health problems and disorders among unaccompanied immigrant minors in the United States and of similar populations of refugee children in other areas of the world.

Source documents were identified through PsychINFO, and CINAHL databases covering the years 2000 to 2019. The following keywords were employed in the computerized search: “unaccompanied immigrant minors”, “unaccompanied asylum-seeking children”, “unaccompanied refugee minors”, “mental health outcomes OR mental health”, and “rates OR prevalence”. After a thorough analysis, 22 sources warranted inclusion including: one policy report, one dissertation and 19 research articles. Jaycox (2002) revealed that 32% of 1,004 school aged recent immigrant children reported PTSD symptoms and 16% reported depressive symptoms within the clinical range. Moreover, Baily (2017) indicated that 75% of 26 unaccompanied Central American children met criteria for at least one anxiety or mood disorder based on symptoms alone in the past year. Although research of UIMs from Central America is scarce, research on unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs) and asylum-seeking children in Northern Europe and among Sudanese refugee minors in the United States has documented the rates of mental health problems among these groups (Bean et al., 2007; Geltman et al., 2005; Jensen et al., 2015; Jensen et al., 2014; Vervliet et al., 2014). Based on these studies, the estimated rates of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and internalizing disorders range from 30% to 50% (Paris et al., 2018). Nevertheless, the rates of mental health outcomes for unaccompanied minors vary across measures, with rates derived from clinical interviews lower than those obtained via self-report measures (El-Awad et al., 2017). These results suggest that UIMs may not report symptoms of psychopathology in clinical interviews and that the use of self-report measures might provide additional insight on unaccompanied minors’ mental health outcomes. The clinical implications of these findings will be discussed.