April 1st, 2017

Executive orders raise fears

The Massachusetts Psychological Association (MPA) strongly condemned President Trump’s executive orders related to refugees, immigrants and other visitors to the United States.

In a statement, the MPA said President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order, which created extensive and in some cases indefinite, limitations on the admission of refugees and other visitors from specific countries, and the Jan. 25 executive order, which makes it easier to deport immigrants, are “very likely to increase stress and trauma among vulnerable populations, limit scientific progress and increase the likelihood of discrimination and stigma.”

Jennifer Warkentin, Ph.D., MPA director of professional affairs, said the MPA quickly began hearing about the impact of the executive orders at the practice level.

“We had already been hearing from members that they were seeing really significant levels of stress and anxiety among their clients,” she said. The MPA issued the statement as a way to share the group’s expertise and knowledge gained through both practice and science.

“Hopefully, we can create more evidence-based decision-making and policy, and really help policy-makers be aware of the impact of some of these decisions,” Warkentin said.

“As psychologists, we’re getting a very different perspective on what people are experiencing because we provide a safe place for them to come and share their anxieties,” Warkentin said. “It’s important for us to share that, not just from an anecdotal perspective, but also, that this isn’t just an anomaly. This is what we are seeing from a scientific perspective.”

The statement highlighted the wealth of research that has documented the stress, trauma and other mental health issues experienced by refugees, particularly those who are fleeing a war. “We want to be very clear on the evidence behind it,” Warkentin said. “This is not a personal opinion. Our position is based on facts and evidence that has been obtained through previous research.”

MPA noted the extensive vetting process already completed by refugees, involving the United Nations, State Department, Homeland Security, F.B.I., and Immigration Services.

“To have gone through all of that, and to finally have this hope of going to a safe place, and have that taken away – that is a huge, huge stressor on somebody who has already been traumatized,” Warkentin said.

Additionally, refugees already here may be concerned about being sent back, or about being the victim of stereotyping, public blame or attack. “It just increases the fear across the board,” Warkentin said. “This is especially important if we are talking about anyone with severe mental illness because stress is one of the biggest triggers.”

The MPA also cautioned about the potential harm to our educational systems and scientific endeavors, because of the international students, researchers and faculty members who are impacted. It referenced statistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that indicated more than 40 percent of its faculty, 40 percent of graduate students, and 10 percent of undergraduates are international; and cited other research that shows discrimination and anti-immigrant attitudes have a significant negative impact on the lives of immigrants and refugees and on their ability to integrate into existing communities.

“We risk losing vital intellectual capital and contributions, both present and future, when these individuals experience uncertainty about their future and place in our country,” the statement read.

Research shows orders such as these increase stress and fear among those who identify with vulnerable populations, regardless of their current protections or status, because it leads to a sense of reduced safety and freedom, according to the MPA.

“We’re seeing a radiation effect,” Warkentin said. “People saying, ‘I have my Green Card – but maybe that’s not going to be enough at some point.’ Even populations not directly impacted are still experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety. When you don’t know what the future holds, it’s hard to feel secure.”

That uncertainty could lead to residents thinking twice about leaving the country to visit family or coming to the U.S. to accept a job or do graduate work at a university, for example, she said.

“I think we’re going to be seeing the impact of this for quite a while, in a lot of different areas – areas we maybe even haven’t thought of yet.”

By Pamela Berard

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