Academic journal article Demographic Research

Remittances and Risk of Major Depressive Episode and Sadness among New Legal Immigrants to the United States

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Remittances and Risk of Major Depressive Episode and Sadness among New Legal Immigrants to the United States

Article excerpt

1. Background

In 2012, international migrants sent over $529 billion abroad (Pew Research Center 2014), a significant portion of which is linked to improved health and well-being for family members who remain behind (Anton 2010; Frank et al. 2009; Lindstrom and Munoz-Franco 2006). However, less attention has been given to the health consequences of sending remittances on immigrants themselves. This paper fills that gap by addressing the link between sending remittances and the mental health of immigrants living in the United States. We focus on mental health because, unlike physical health where immigrants are thought to be advantaged over native-born peers, research suggests a more ambiguous link between migrant status and mental health. Although immigrants at arrival may have better mental health than the native-born, these advantages dissipate over time (Takeuchi et al. 2007). Examining how mental health outcomes are related to remittance sending may offer insights into larger health disparities between immigrants and natives.

Previous literature provides little conclusive evidence that remitting has positive or negative effects on immigrants' mental health. On the one hand, remitting may be beneficial for immigrants' mental health by allowing individuals to feel that they are instrumentally engaged in the lives of family members, and that they 'matter' (Global Commission on International Migration [GCIM] 2005). Both 'mattering' and social engagement are associated with a lower risk of mental illness/psychological distress (Taylor and Turner 2001). In China, a recent study found that internal migrants who remitted reported less psychological distress than those who did not (Akay et al. 2012).

On the other hand, the obligation and act of sending money to family and friends may expose immigrants to economic hardship (Abrego 2009; Schmalzbauer 2005). Weak control over monies that are remitted may also lead to feelings of frustration and exploitation among some immigrants (GCIM 2005). Additionally, remitting can generate stress by diverting time and resources away from other goals (Mossakowski 2011) such as completing school or starting a family (GCIM 2005). Previous research documents the link between economic hardship and psychological distress (Butterworth et al. 2009; Chiao et al. 2011; Kahn and Pearlin 2006) and has shown the ways in which stress leads to depression (Kessler 1997).

In addition, the link between remittances and mental health likely varies across immigrants of different backgrounds. Low-income individuals are less likely to remit overall because they need their resources to subsist (Carling 2008); when they do remit, they may shoulder a greater burden than those with higher incomes. In the U.S., people who entered as humanitarian migrants (e.g., refugees, asylum seekers) report poorer health compared to those who migrated under employment visas (Akresh and Frank 2008). For humanitarian migrants, stress emanating from providing remittances may exacerbate pre-existing health problems (GCIM 2005). The effect of remittances on health may also vary by gender. Men tend to remit larger sums than women, but women remit more frequently and consistently than men, a pattern aligned with norms about care and cultural obligations within which harmful stress may be embedded (Abrego 2009; Curran and Saguy 2001; Kessler and McLeod 1984).

In this study, we posit that sending remittances to family and friends will be associated with a higher risk of a major depressive episode (MDE) or sadness among immigrants. We argue that even if remittances provide immigrants with a positive sense of 'mattering', the stress that surrounds remittance sending will outweigh any positive psychological benefits. We also posit that this association will be more pronounced among women, low-income persons, and humanitarian migrants.

2. Methods

2.1 Data and sample

Cross-sectional data come from Wave 1 of the New Immigrant Survey, a study of individuals granted legal permanent residence (LPR) to the U. …

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