Tuesday September 15 6:48 AM EDT
American Society Can Cause Mental Illness - Study

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Is living in America bad for your mental health?

A new study released Monday reported that, for many immigrants from Mexico, mental health problems rise the longer they live in the United States.

``This is clearly a social effect, not a biological one,'' said William Vega, the professor of public health at the University of California-Berkeley who conducted the study.

``Mexicans come to this country with some kind of natural protection against mental disorder, and that breaks down very quickly in American society,'' he said. ``In fact, it goes in one generation.''

Vega's report, which appears in the current issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, studied some 3,000 urban, rural and small town residents of California's Fresno County. Half of those studied were Mexican-Americans, while the other half were Mexican-born immigrants.

The study found that U.S.-born Mexican-Americans had mental disorders at about the same rate as non-Hispanic Americans, with roughly 48 percent suffering from maladies including depression, panic disorder, phobias, or alcohol or drug abuse.

But for recent immigrants and Mexican nationals, the rate of mental disorder was much lower at only around 25 percent -- reflecting a healthier outlook that Vega believes is linked to the traditional Mexican family structure.

``These people are under enormous financial stress,'' Vega said. ``Yet, the primary issue for the development of mental disturbance was not financial. I believe it has to do with the emotional support and nurturance people received from living in committed family relationships.''

In an effort to avoid cultural bias, Vega's study used an international psychiatric testing method developed by the World Health Organization and compared the Fresno sample to a separate group of about 1,700 people living in Mexico City.

Vega said the rising incidence of mental health problems among Mexican immigrants mirrors the gradual break-down in their family ties. Among Mexican immigrants interviewed for the study, roughly 80 percent were married compared with only about 50 percent of the Mexican-Americans.

``Divorce alone is not the cause of the decline in mental health,'' Vega said. ``It is one example of a change in values away from a collective family life.''

Vega said he expected similar studies now underway among different immigrant groups with strong family traditions such as Filipinos and Chinese to reflect the results found among Mexican immigrants.

``There's an exchange (in immigration),'' Vega said. ``These people are coming here for a reason, for jobs....but in this country you give up something. There is a price to pay.''

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