The long-term effects of child detention

Certain conditions faced by children in detention centers for migrants can lead to short and long-term health problems. The analysis refers to the conditions of Latin immigrants on the Mexico-US border but is applicable to children detained in Libya or off the Italian coast.

The DNA of children locked up in detention centers will not forget traumas

Dr. Learman, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, discusses in an article how certain conditions faced by children in migrant detention centers can lead to short and long-term health problems. The considerations refer to the conditions of Latin immigrants on the Mexico-US border, but they certainly remain valid also for children detained in detention centers in Libya or left off the Italian coast.

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In the United States, one of the hottest issues discussed so far in the 2020 presidential race is immigration reform. There is widespread outrage at the separation of families and the horrific conditions in detention centers along the Mexican border. For children, unfortunately, leaving detention centers is not the end of their ordeal. The trauma of a child's detention experience can increase the risk of physical and psychological health problems not only for the rest of their lives but also for the lives of their children.

There are many practices in immigration detention centers that can create physical and mental health problems. For example, separation, absence of physical contact, sleep deprivation. Being separated from your family at a young age can have harmful effects on your health. Children respond to stressful and traumatic situations in various ways. From studies of children in Russian orphanages, we know that even short isolation can cause anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Problems that can persist into adulthood. Additional long-term effects include an increased risk of drug abuse, heart disease, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental delays.

In detention centers for US immigrants, detainees are not allowed to touch each other, nor are guards allowed to touch them. This rule exists to minimize the risk of abuse, but it can have negative effects on the child's development. Physical contact is extremely important, especially in times of stress. Not allowing guards, parents or other children to comfort a child in distress is harmful to the mental health of the upset child and, equally, it is frustrating for the person who would like to give relief even with just a caress.

In many immigration detention facilities, the lights are on 24 hours a day. This causes insomnia and interruption of sleep cycles, as well as increasing the risk of certain types of cancer and depression in old age. Interrupted sleep can have negative consequences for cognitive development, mood regulation, attention, and behavior. In addition, interrupted sleep cycles can increase insulin resistance and, as a result, increase the risk of developing diabetes. In addition to these three stressful conditions, there are many others: malnutrition, increased rates of overcrowding leading to different infections, and self-harm/suicide.

From previous studies, we know that trauma can have psychological and physiological effects that affect subsequent generations. For example, children of Holocaust survivors had higher chances of developing PTSD, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders. Children of victims of the Rwandan genocide have increased PTSD rates. The grandchildren of Dutch famine survivors have an increased risk of developing obesity.

According to the current consensus, stressful or traumatic situations lead to epigenetic changes. No changes in the DNA sequence are passed on to subsequent generations, but rather changes that occur in the packaging of DNA and influence gene expression. For example, a Holocaust survivor experienced prolonged periods of extreme stress and corresponding increases in the production of the stress hormone receptors, cortisol. During this period, the DNA sequence encoding these receptors was marked with molecular tags that kept it free, so that it could respond quickly to the huge amounts of stress hormone being produced.

At the end of the Holocaust, these molecular tags were not completely degraded, so the survivor maintained a high number of cortisol receptors and a corresponding increase in sensitivity to the stress hormone. When the survivor had children, those children inherited the same molecular tags, making them also more sensitive to cortisol. This explains how epigenetic changes can codify traumatic experiences and transmit the effects to future generations.

Will this happen to refugee and migrant children? How can we help them and prevent the traumas they are experiencing from having lasting consequences? To learn more about these issues, we invite you to read the interview with Dr. Tania Maria Caballero here.

Learman LN. Their DNA Will Remember: The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Detention. Biomedical Odyssey - Life at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Jul 19, 2019