The invisible war

Twenty years after the 36-year long civil conflict in Guatemala, a UGA-led research team found many Guatemalan refugees in Mexico still suffering from a variety of mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. They point to a variety of factors as causes, including human rights violations, traumatic events and refugee status. Their research was published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The principal investigator on the project was Miriam Sabin, professor of social work at UGA.

Twenty years ago, an estimated 200,000 Mayan refugees fled to Mexico from Guatemala. A year later, 46,000 of them were under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2000, 12,500 refugees and their Mexican-born children remained in 60 UNHCR refugee camps there.

In November and December 2000, Sabin and her team conducted a cross sectional survey of 183 households in five of these Mayan refugee camps, representing an estimated 1,546 residents. The researchers assessed the prevalence of mental illness and the need for mental health services. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and native languages.

“Twenty years after a devastating war for the Maya people, the negative effects of trauma and living in refugee camps appear to be pervasive,” says Sabin. “The UNHCR is in the process of phasing out programs in Chiapas since the refugees have been granted Mexican citizenship, so this study coincides with a new era for the Guatemalan refugees. It also calls attention to the need for mental health assistance to the millions of refugees worldwide who have been exposed to life-altering events.”