Q&A: Michael A. de Arellano on Trauma and Latino Youth

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Photograph of a smiling young Latino man.

Michael A. de Arellano is a professor and a licensed clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina’s National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in Charleston, SC. In his research and clinical practice, he develops and evaluates treatment services for victims of trauma from traditionally underserved groups, including Latino immigrants. Last year, he spoke before the federal government’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence (PDF, 265KB) at a public hearing in Miami about how service providers and researchers can assist immigrant children and youth who have experienced violence.

We spoke to de Arellano about the specific kinds of trauma Latino youth and families face and how evidence-based practices can be adapted to better suit their needs.

Q: Are there particular types of trauma Latino populations face that you don’t necessarily find in other groups?

A: Folks who are undocumented, they often will not have a bank account, and they will keep money in their homes. And so when they’re paid on Fridays, it becomes an increased risk for having break-ins. And we’ve actually seen that in North Charleston, where there was an increase in break-ins and robberies mostly with Hispanic families as targets.

Another thing with our Hispanic families--we did a study where we looked at 204 child and parent dyads, and most of the kids were of Mexican descent. They were all immigrant families, and two-thirds of the children had immigrated here. After accounting for all the other traumas that folks had experienced, about one in four of our children reported additional traumatic events during immigration. And it turned out that what we referred to as immigration-related trauma was one of the best predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in this population.

One of the most common things that they were reporting was that the process itself was scary. There are all these horror stories that people get beat up, that people get left behind. So there’s a lot of fear associated with hiring a coyote to bring you over illegally. Some of the other assessments that we’ve done with our families, there’s a question asking about “Have you ever seen a dead body?” And it’s really scary how many of our kids who are immigrating from Mexico, and especially those living in border towns in Mexico that have a lot of drug-related violence, it’s amazing how many of them have seen a dead body or seen somebody get injured or killed from drug-related violence.

Q: What do we know about adapting evidence-based trauma therapies for Hispanic people?

A: It’s important to talk about evidence-based treatments. You hear people say, “Well they haven’t been developed for this population, and so we don’t know if it’s going to work,” so they’re hesitant to use them. Unless we think there’s a really good reason the evidence-based treatment would not work with a population, we probably should use what’s been evaluated.

When you make modifications to treatments, when you’re incorporating culture, when you’re addressing language issues, you can actually take interventions and make them more effective. For example, if you’re changing the names of characters in vignettes or examples, if the pictures and books that you’re using are more ethnically diverse or at least representative of the individuals that you’re serving, then it helps children and families to see that this is more relevant to them, that it’s more congruent with the people that they see and hopefully with their belief system too. It seems that when you make these modifications you get better outcomes.

With Latinos, or any cultural group, if they believe that the treatment is not tailored for them, if it’s really not something that incorporates their beliefs, if it’s something that seems more mainstream, it can affect the likelihood that they’re going to be engaged in it. If you can make some minor modifications to treatment, you can change that engagement process.

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