It is common to hear ‘History repeats itself’ and unfortunately I see it happening in the area of immigration. After separating many children from their parents at our nation’s borders the government seems to be solely focused on reunification. While that is an important part of the process it will never make families whole. Children separated from their parents not only face a mental health crisis now but will for years to come. This is an area where the past can help us understand present conditions.
In 1923, the German-French border was being contested and as a result my mother, who was 3 at the time, was separated from her parents. She and her two young siblings were sent to live with family in Germany. It was several months before the three siblings saw either parent again. While the family eventually grew to include seven children, the oldest three—those who lived through that traumatic separation event—all suffered from lifelong major depression and two committed suicide.
I was 12 when my mother died. She was a well-respected physician in her adopted community in Michigan, yet was unable to obtain adequate mental health support. The mental health struggles and suicides of my mother, aunt and uncle reverberated through the next generation, affecting me, my siblings and cousins.
Many years later, medical studies would help us to understand how damaging Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) really are. The ACE studies provide a scientific explanation of the biological mechanisms behind why the three oldest of seven siblings ended up suffering so strikingly while none of the others did. Experiencing severe traumatic stress at a young age does not just go away. It physically prunes the connections in the emotional centers of the brain needed to form strong attachments and develop empathy as an adult. Traumatized children are much more likely to grow into adults with mental health issues. Certain genes turn on or off, increasing the likelihood of physical health issues, including hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
It is physically nauseating for me as a pediatrician, and a daughter, to listen to the news reports of the ongoing separations of asylum-seeking children from their parents, and the trauma we are currently putting young families through in the United States. Many of these families are fleeing significant violence in their homeland. To inflict separation on top of that is creating unnecessary physical and mental stress on young children who cannot fully comprehend the situation they are placed in.
Just as we expect parents to be responsible for the health and welfare of their children, we as Americans should also demand our government to be responsible for the health and welfare of the children in OUR care. Humanity requires us to ask if these actions are how other humans should be treated. As Americans, we would never require that a child be sexually abused or watch his mother be beaten but we are creating toxic stress in another form by not addressing the long term needs of these children. I encourage everyone to remember the lessons of our families’ pasts, and to face the future with these children and their families and not turn away.
Teresa Holtrop, M.D., is the president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and executive/medical director of the Wayne Children's Health Access Program.