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Young Immigrants Lose More Than Just a Place

Edilma Yearwood, associate professor of nursing

Edilma Yearwood, who emigrated from Panama to New York with her family at the age of 8, says the stresses of adapting to a new environment can be traumatizing for immigrant children and adolescents.

May 26, 2010 –The stresses of adapting to a new environment can be traumatizing for immigrant children and adolescents, says Edilma Yearwood, associate professor of nursing, and part of that stress is due to delays in accessing mental health care.

“A major issue with immigrant communities is separation and loss,” says the professor, who teaches courses in psychiatric and mental health nursing. “Loss is huge. It’s not just a place. It’s a culture. It’s a tradition. It’s a language.”

Yearwood, who emigrated from Panama to New York with her family at the age of 8, knows firsthand the stress involved in leaving behind family and friends at a young age.

Delays in accessing mental health services may be attributed to their immigration status as well as the stigma surrounding mental illness in general and in specific cultures.

With support from Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Yearwood also is researching childhood obesity in Latino immigrants -- an issue that may be related to mental health, she says.

Her research on immigrant youth has led her abroad to study the cultural influences.

Yearwood collaborated with nursing faculty and students at the University of West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, through a six-week Fulbright faculty fellowship in 2008. She also lectured there on mental health and evidence-based nursing practice and visited treatment facilities.

She says communities in developing countries often don’t have the resources to focus on mental health because they are concerned with the basics of survival.

This concern was amplified earlier this year after a Jan. 12 earthquake hit Haiti.

“I think the recent events have really been an eye-opener for those of us in the mental health field,” she says. “I’m concerned about the number of kids who are homeless, the number of kids who are potential victims and … who are dealing with issues like PTSD and not being treated.”

Tackling U.S. Mental Health Issues

Failure to recognize mental health problems in young people also happens in the United States, the professor says.

“As a specialist, I am acutely aware that kids access mental health services late, if at all,” Yearwood says. “They do use primary care for a variety of health care needs, but they don’t have access to mental health services readily unless forced to by schools or the juvenile justice system.”

The scholar is co-editing a textbook, Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health: A Resource for Advanced Practice Psychiatric and Primary Care Practitioners in Nursing, which will focus on giving U.S. primary-care providers the knowledge base they need to recognize mental health issues in adolescents and children. She says this will help them make appropriate referrals to mental health specialists.

“The win-win will be to develop a stronger collaborative approach among all of these advanced practice nursing specialties,” Yearwood says. “The bottom line is that we want kids to get mental health service when they need it.”

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