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Political Violence Has Lingering Health Effect

Latino immigrant study finds mental and physical problems

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TUESDAY, Aug. 5, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The health effects of political violence are farther-reaching and longer-lasting than most people imagine.

In a study of Latino immigrants living in Los Angeles, researchers found that those who experienced political violence in their home countries were two to four times more likely to suffer from physical or mental health problems than other immigrants.

"Many immigrants and refugee patients have been tortured or survived other horrendous acts of political violence," says the study's lead author, Dr. David Eisenman, a clinical instructor of medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine in Los Angeles. "The health effects -- both mental and physical -- are long-lasting and can be disabling."

Eisenman and his colleagues randomly selected 638 adult Latino immigrants from three different primary care clinics in Los Angeles to participate in the study. Most of the immigrants had come from Mexico or other Central American countries, according to the study, which appears in the Aug. 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The issue is devoted to reports on violence and human rights.

There are more than 4 million Latinos living in Los Angeles, comprising nearly 45 percent of the area's population, reports the study, noting also that Latinos represent about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population and are the fastest growing minority.

All of the study participants were interviewed to assess what types of political violence they had suffered in the past and the current state of their physical and mental health.

More than half -- 54 percent -- reported having exposure to political violence. Eight percent said they had been tortured themselves. Fifteen percent had witnessed violence against a family member. Twenty-seven percent reported having a family member disappear. Mass violence was witnessed by 26 percent of the group, and 32 percent said their lives had been endangered by bombs or attacks with heavy weapons.

The researchers found that 36 percent of those who had lived through political violence suffered from depression, compared to 20 percent of those who had not. Eighteen percent of the political violence survivors had symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared to only 8 percent of those who hadn't been exposed to political violence.

Political violence survivors were also almost five times more likely to have symptoms of panic disorder, says the study.

The ill effects of political violence weren't limited to mental health problems. Eisenman says the people who reported political violence were more likely to suffer from chronic pain and physical limitations, as well as to say they had a worse health-related quality of life.

"This study demonstrates that the issue of trauma among immigrant populations is an important one to consider because it can have an impact on their health and well-being," says Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for the Survivors of Torture in New York City. "While this study focused on these issues with regard to the Latino population, these concerns are not unique to that community. These are really concerns for a number of immigrant and refugee communities."

Keller says more training for doctors is needed so they can identify and properly treat these patients, or refer them to any necessary specialists.

In the study, only 3 percent of the participants had ever been asked if they had suffered violence in their homeland. The researchers recommend that doctors ask their immigrant patients about their prior experiences in their native country.

More information

This article from the National Institute of Mental Health looks at the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder, and this press release from the NIMH explains how early intervention may help lessen the trauma of mass violence. You could also try Survivors International, which has compiled a list of resources.

SOURCES: David Eisenman, M.D., M.S.H.S., clinical instructor of medicine, UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles; Allen Keller, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, New York University School of Medicine, and director, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, New York City; Aug. 6, 2003, Journal of the American Medical Association
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