Professor Salas-Wright’s Research on Venezuelan Children Confirms Far-Reaching Negative Impacts Before and After Emigrating

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

Nearly half of Venezuelan youth who escaped their country’s rampant hyperinflation experienced hunger before coming to the U.S., according to a study by BU School of Social Work Professor Christopher Salas-Wright. And the research, published on December 12 by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, shows that those youth who suffered from hunger were far more likely to develop moderate to severe depression, even after emigrating.

“Since 2015, two defining features of life in Venezuela are hunger and emigration,” says Salas-Wright, who travels frequently to South Florida to work with Raíces Venezolanas, an organization that assists recently arrived Venezuelan families. “In the face of this once prosperous country’s severe economic collapse, food scarcity is a regular occurrence.” The UN estimates, in fact, that more than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the South American nation—with approximately 500,000 coming to the U.S.

The severity of the crisis in Venezuela only continues to intensify as millions—including many children—flee their nation’s unprecedented economic collapse. “Venezuelans are by far the fastest growing Hispanic origin group in the U.S.,” notes Salas-Wright. “It’s critical to understand how hunger among children impacts post-migration adaptation. Such knowledge will directly inform ongoing and future programs to support this population.”

Although prior research has shown that hunger and the stress of migration can increase risk for behavioral health problems, no research has examined the experiences of Venezuelan children in diaspora—until now. Salas-Wright, joined by BU student Mariana Cohen (SSW’19, SPH’20), a native of Venezuela, and colleagues from Saint Louis University and University of Miami, collected data as part of the Venezolanos en Nuevos Entornos (Venezuelans in New Environments) Project. This web-based survey, conducted between November 2018 and July 2019, captured responses from 400+ Venezuelan youth aged 10–17 years who had arrived in the U.S. since 2015.

The majority of young people surveyed did not meet criteria for depression, but among those who experienced hunger the rates of depression were high, “suggesting that experiencing hunger in Venezuela has important longer-term implications for psychological well-being,” says Salas-Wright. “Only five percent of all Venezuelan children had moderate to severe levels of depression. The proportion was only 2 percent among those who had not experienced hunger prior to migrating, but among those who did go hungry the rate was 8.5 percent.”

“Even when we controlled for post-migration hunger and post-migration family economic hardship, the odds of moderate to severe depression were 3.5 times greater among youth reporting hunger in Venezuela prior to migrating when compared to those who didn’t experience hunger,” says Salas-Wright. “There are a lot of complex issues in our world, but childhood hunger is straightforward. And these are really astounding rates of hunger.”

“This is an important data point for policymakers and practitioners alike,” he concludes. “Children who have immigrated to the U.S. after experiencing significant hardship, specifically hunger, in their countries of origin are particularly vulnerable to negative psychosocial outcomes, even when their material well-being has improved after immigration. Developing targeted programs to support the psychosocial well-being of this population is an important area for future research and practice.”

Article by Maura King Scully