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More than words: How societal attitudes and political rhetoric may affect immigrant health in the United States

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Last month Jane J. Lee, assistant professor at the UW School of Social Work, published a study detailing how the perceived negative attitudes held by society and the constant political rhetoric surrounding immigrants and immigration policies have tangible effects on the health of immigrants in the United States, regardless of whether or not policies are actually implemented.

The study used a multi-method approach, combining both in-depth interviews and surveys to ask community stakeholders and Latino immigrant participants in Corona, Queens questions about how the overarching political climate was shaping their behaviors. The study emerged from a larger study of Lee’s focusing on HIV testing and prevention efforts among Latino immigrants after researchers noticed a trend in how immigrants’ perceptions of the sociopolitical context shaped their behaviors, specifically those related to health.

“We found that there were these overarching themes which really highlighted that a lot of participants emphasized that they weren’t really sure what was going on,” Lee said. “There was a lack of knowledge, uncertainty, and also just hopelessness about the situation and what might happen next.”

These feelings of uncertainty and fear resulting from the political discourse surrounding immigration often led to great stress among the Latino immigrant participants in the study, which in turn negatively affected their health and health-related behaviors. At a basic level, negative attitudes toward immigrants led to participants experiencing high levels of stress, which is known to have adverse effects on health.

At a more complex level, participants discussed how negative political rhetoric toward immigrants led to fears about what could happen if they went to a doctor, regardless of their documentation status. This led to them being less likely to seek health care when they may have needed it. Additionally, some participants expressed that they experienced so many other worries that health was pushed down on their list of priorities.

Lee pointed out that the study was small and qualitative, so the findings cannot be generalized to all immigrants or even all Latino immigrants. However, the research can help inform how we think about policy discussions and may suggest interventions to improve healthcare accessibility and health education for immigrants.

While the idea that words and rhetoric have real world effects isn’t new, this study is a good illustration of one of the common ways this phenomenon manifests in the United States.

“Even if nothing results of [a policy idea] concretely, it does have an impact,” Lee said. “It has an impact on people’s perceptions of immigrants, it has an impact on how people understand what’s happening.”

These findings illustrate how immigrants’ perceptions of the sociopolitical context in which they live have effects on their behaviors. Lee says that these perceptions should be taken into account when making health resources more accessible to immigrants.

“There are multiple factors that are preventing an individual from engaging in [healthy] behaviors even if services are available,” Lee said. “It’s not just about availability of services; you can develop a drug, or you can develop a technology, but if it’s not reaching those communities who need it most then you need to think about different ways to make it more accessible and make it actually useful for them if they’re not going to a doctor’s office to obtain it.”

Lee believes that the findings of her study can help us refine our approach to improving access to healthcare and health education for immigrants. She suggests more individualized interventions which identify the specific needs of vulnerable individuals and communities that face barriers when accessing health resources. This way, the needs of the individual or community can be specifically tailored and met more efficiently.

Reach reporter Emily Young at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @emilymyoung7

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