What immigration detention did to my mental health.

Image by Aimee Castenell / Flickr.com

When night approaches and it is time to fall asleep, we think about finally getting some well deserved rest. But when you are held inside an immigration detention center, going to sleep often means coming a step closer to being deported.

Unfortunately, I know all too well the pain of this particular kind of sleeplessness because in 2011, Customs and Border patrol took me into custody and detained me for three weeks at an immigration detention center in Pompano Beach, Florida. I spent three agonizing weeks detained due to my lack of immigration status. During the time I was detained, I witnessed human rights violations which had long lasting repercussions on my mental health.

My experience is just one of many in immigrant communities whose mental health is impacted when mass deportation and detention policies affect even seemingly mundane aspects of life, such as falling asleep.

Just a few days into being detained, ICE officials pulled me aside, along with a few other women, to hand us orders of voluntary departure. The officials quickly rushed us onto a secluded area and produced a document to sign. All the documents were in English, and as I quickly glanced at the document I realized that it was a consent form agreeing to be deported. Once I found out what the document entailed, I responded, “I am not signing this”.

Unfortunately, during the time I was reading the document’s content, the other women who were non-English speakers had already been pressured into signing their consent forms. One of them was my roommate. When I realized what had just occurred, I felt nauseous and blamed myself for not being able to stop her and the other women from signing. I couldn’t shake off the feeling of guilt. Neither my roommate nor I could fall asleep for about a week straight, fearing that ICE officials would come for her at night.

That dreaded night finally arrived when we were awakened by the sounds of ICE agents loudly storming into our room, ordering her to get up and gather her things. Even though my roommate had been experiencing excessive bleeding due to her menstrual cycle, no regard was shown for her well-being, nor any attempt to treat her with even basic dignity by giving her a change of clothes to replace the ones that had been stained from not receiving appropriate care. I remember hugging her and holding onto her tightly. I watched her being taken away and found myself crying — paralyzed from the pain. I stood there witnessing her deportation, unable to stop it.

To this day, the vivid feelings and scenes from that experience replay in my mind from time to time. After being detained I began experiencing night terrors, a form or panic attacks that disrupt one’s sleep. The trauma spilled into aspects of my life that I didn’t anticipate or even recognize right away. My mental health suffered to the point of causing my cognitive skills to deteriorate. My reading and writing skills became delayed. I also began to stutter while I spoke and often had to pause to continue on with conversations. One of the most challenging things that took me a while to overcome was getting over the stigma around mental health and acknowledging that I needed to seek professional care.

When I visited a community mental health clinic, I was placed on a six month wait list. I was eventually matched with a therapist and later diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) due to the trauma caused by my incarceration. I have now been in therapy for over two years, and my experience has made it unforgettably clear to me the kind of impact that detention has on the mental health of immigrants. This is not only true for people who have directly experienced detention and/or deportation, like I have, but also those who live everyday with the debilitating fear that they or their loved ones could be next.

Immigration policies and practices are inextricably linked to public health and community well-being because of the real and lasting consequences that the threat of being detained or deported has for immigrants and their families. Harm reduction is a core principle of disease prevention, and the barriers to mental health wellness can only be addressed by discontinuing harmful mass deportation and detentions and addressing the unique needs of targeted immigrant communities.