Beyond Politics: How Undocumented Youth Can Find Emotional Support

The recent suicide of an undocumented teenager in Texas has shed new light on the unique emotional challenges that face thousands of young people in the U.S.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Dec 02, 2011

On the day after Thanksgiving, 18-year-old Joaquin Luna took his life. An undocumented student in Texas, Luna was reportedly anxious about his immigration status. While the tragedy has been widely reported in some progressive circles, it also points to the deeply disturbing reality that many people struggle with mental illness and thoughts of helplessness, and it’s especially hard for undocumented young people to find help.

There is not an undocumented person or ally, family member or loved one that has not witnessed or experienced the effects that systematic dehumanization and alienation can have on the body, mind and spirit. People who find themselves directly impacted,and those of us who walk with and behind, have also witnessed the inner strength and courage that goes beyond what a person’s status is and to the core of who people are.

Given the seriousness of the situation, we sought out friends and experts to spread the word about mental health awareness, and support. We are thankful to our friend Sonia Guinansaca at the New York State Youth Leadership Council, for her candid and heartfelt testimony. And we also spoke with Chicago-based social worker Jacqueline Luna, an ally who supports young people organizing via the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) and the The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA).

What would you tell someone currently struggling that would offer them hope?

Sonia: As a person who has been suicidal and still battles with it, I have realized that I am not alone. In our communities, mental health is something that should be openly discussed, but it is not discussed enough.

Many times I felt alone with this struggle, I felt ashamed and guilty like I was the only one with suicidal thoughts and I felt that there was something wrong with me that I was letting down the movement and that I was weak.

During one of the NIYA’s meetings, I found someone that reassured me I am human and reassured me that there is a community that has my back and will support me even across states. Since then, I have reached out to community counseling and been open about my struggle with mentors and close friends and now to all of you.

I know it is tough,but there is hope. Seek proper help and know that you are valued, that you are beautiful and it is tough, but you are not alone. We are here for each other. 

Within the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the most helpful resources have been our Support Group, Arts and Expression, and Mentoring Programs. The support group started about 3 years ago and has been a space where young undocumented people feel comfortable coming to and sharing concerns and trauma. It has been facilitated by counselors in training — with and without papers.

How did you start working with DREAMers on mental health issues?

Jacqueline: I have a personal connection to the work. Both of my parents were undocumented for a period of time as I was growing up, and it really impacted them in different ways. And I feel like it still affects my mom, but she’s also a very strong, determined woman. It impacted how she raised me and my siblings, so that’s always been a part of me knowing where my parents come from.

I also dated someone who was undocumented. As we had our relationship, we also met other people who were undocumented and they became part of my family and community. So I talked to them and heard from them what it felt like to be undocumented. [They described] not feeling heard, or not being seen as a whole person.

Thinking of my privilege as a US citizen, but also as a mental health worker, in a field that’s all about talking about your feelings and supporting people, I was really wondering how I could help the people I cared about in a more concrete way. But also pushing this movement forward in a sustainable way, because a lot of the organizers are undocumented themselves and also supporting other undocumented people.

What does mental health access currently look like for undocumented people?

Jacqueline: It is limited because there isn’t enough awareness in terms of the undocumented community, of where they can go. And organizations that provide mental health services aren’t always making themselves known and accessible to the undocumented community. There are free services, affordable or income-based services like sliding scale in community-based organizations.

It takes a lot for someone to be able to admit they need help. And there’s the other piece too of really hoping that the person you’re meeting with is aware of an undocumented experience, so they’re not using the i-word and they’re not further scaring people and [they] really just listen and support.

What are some of the coping mechanisms that can be used specifically by organizers who are on the front lines? 

Jacqueline: When you’re organizing around something that’s so connected to who you are, it’s very personal as much as it is political. You’re wholeheartedly invested in what you’re doing, so the degree of separation maybe at some point isn’t there. It can also be a way to disconnect from your feelings and kind of make it about the political process.

I think for organizers, it’s important for them to acknowledge that they have their own experience in addition to their organizing experience. They have to really tune into their feelings. If they’re feeling frustrated, if they’re feeling angry about their own experience, they have to acknowledge that and think about how those feelings will spill into a meeting and other interactions.

Once people are able to acknowledge their own feelings, it’s about what they want to do with it. Do they want to avoid, it, ignore it for the moment and keep moving? Or do they need to really address it and develop some type of coping skill that they need to talk to someone about? As much as we try to keep our emotions in, they come out in other ways. In our behavior, in our bodies as in headaches, stomach aches.

What are some of the signs that friends and family should look out for if someone is feeling this unique stress and anxiety over their future?

Jacqueline: Typically, if someone isn’t able to talk about it and instead trying to deal with it alone, it may be all they are thinking about so they may not be as present in class, at work, at home, or in conversations with friends. People may be withdrawn from family and friends and stop doing activities that they normally enjoy. They may be into other behavior that is out of the ordinary for them. It could be that they’re trying drugs or drinking more. Or they’re isolating themselves and they used to be a really social person. It can manifest in different ways, but the change is expressed consistently for weeks or months.

Asking someone about their mental health doesn’t have to be taboo. It just means you are showing concern for the other person. We should be able to ask and to really take the time to intentionally check in with someone.

What are some of the best ways you have seen communities take care of one another and rely on their own wisdom in terms of prevention and getting creative when there is a lack of access?

Jacqueline: There are a few things. First, I’ve heard of undocumented potlucks here in Chicago. Only undocumented people are invited. It’s a safe space, from what I have gathered, and a time where people can really share deeply and build trust.

Another important thing is humor. Julio Salgado has done a couple of videos about how being undocumented is not a crime, but it’s awkward. The scenes show humor that undocumented people can relate to, and it acknowledges that within the community, stress can also be relieved through laughter. "Ask Angy" and her dating while undocumented video is another great one.

Finally, for many people it’s been helpful to join an organization and take a more active role in changing immigration status. Even if it’s not getting deeply involved, it can be about connecting, being more aware and knowing that people are organizing to change things and can offer support.