Suicide of Venezuelan migrant points to mental health crisis

Like the thousands of migrants who arrived in Chicago from the Texas border this summer on charter buses, 30-year-old Rona Matahary Rozo had dreams of a better life in this country for herself and her family. But on December 2 she was found dead in a suburban hotel room that had been her home for nearly four months.

Rozo died by suicide, according to medical examiner’s records. Despite his resilience after the trip north, he had been experiencing mental health problems, his sister Nefer Rozo said. a local news outlet in Spanish.

In New York, two migrants committed suicide in shelters run by the city, according to local authorities. A mother died in September and a young father died last week.

“(Rona Rozo’s death) could have been prevented if she had received the help she needed,” Nefer Rozo said. The family is part of the group of migrants staying at the Holiday Inn Countryside, one of the hotels that state agencies have converted into temporary housing for asylum seekers.

On December 12, she was buried in the Resurrection Cemetery, far from her native Venezuela.

As her family members mourn her loss, advocates are concerned that other migrants may not have access to appropriate resources to deal with mental health issues in shelters and temporary living facilities.

The deaths by suicide serve as a warning about the mental health crisis faced by migrants living in shelters months after arriving in the country, and raise awareness about the support that must be provided beyond food and housing, Oscar Chacón said. , co-founder and CEO of Americas Alliancean umbrella group of immigrant-led organizations serving immigrants in the United States.

Nearly 4,000 immigrants, mostly from Venezuela, have been bussed to Chicago since August as part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to protest federal immigration policies. Most migrants endure a journey of months through several countries before reaching the southern border and turning themselves in. Many suffer robbery, abuse, rape and hunger.

A group of migrants board a CTA bus at Chicago's Union Station to be taken to a Salvation Army shelter after arriving from Texas on August 31, 2022.

Those traumas are just a few of the many stressors that put migrants at risk for depression, anxiety and other serious mental health problems, said Emely Ledesma, a bilingual clinical social worker at the Marjorie Kovler Center who has worked with asylum seekers and refugees for over 30 years.

He said that asylum seekers are often faced with a triple trauma paradigm: the pre-migration experience, which includes the potentially traumatic reasons why they had to leave home; the trip to the United States, which is often fraught with violence and dangerous conditions; and once they reach their destination, open uncertainty about their safety, immigration status, and separation from their families.

“People who can get a status here, who have a work permit, do much better,” Ledesma said.

But the reality is that arriving immigrants will not be getting a work permit any time soon due to a delay in the asylum application process and a lack of lawyers willing to take on the often complicated, lengthy and expensive cases. The length of time migrants spend in shelters and hotels is also unknown, as government agencies cannot legally connect them with jobs and therefore a more stable future, Chacón said.

“Migrants find themselves in a real dilemma because on the one hand they are allowed to enter and request asylum but our laws basically deny them access to the most basic right that a person can have and that is the right to work legally in the country. Chacon said. “That is a long-standing challenge that can cause confusion and despair, because for many that is their only goal.”

Although they are grateful to have a warm place to sleep and plenty of food, some of the migrants at the Countryside Hotel where Rozo lived, who did not want to share their names for fear of reprisals, described their temporary accommodation as “not favourable.” .” The place is far from the city, where they can connect with other immigrants, access public transportation and find work, they say.

Alfredo Gomez, 50, a former maintenance worker at the hotel, said most people at the hotel have been there for more than two months, and while the kids can spend some time in the pool, there’s little else to worry about. can do. “They seem desperate and frustrated,” he said. “They don’t know what will happen next.”

In a statement, a representative of Illinois Department of Human Services, which runs the shelters, said the agency supports Rona Rozo’s family and that “staff are committed to providing ongoing mental health support and services during this difficult time.”

“IDHS expresses our deepest condolences to the Rozo family at this time,” the statement said, but did not elaborate on the situation at the hotel and the future of the migrants who remain there.

Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25, has criticized the way the city and state have responded to the humanitarian crisis, questioning the safety of migrants under his refuge system. Sigcho-Lopez said he has received reports of “distressed migrants” and, after visiting a hotel in Harvey, discovered that the migrants were isolated and in need of mental health care, education and other critical services.

“(The recent suicide) is tragic because I think it could have been prevented,” Sigcho-López said. “When we have people committing suicide out of despair of not being able to find any kind of support or safety net and not because of a lack of resources, we have resources but they are not appropriately allocated.”

In November, Sigcho-Lopez and a group of community activists introduced Mayor Lori Lightfoot a plan that would take advantage of underutilized schools, churches and community centers to provide housing and other support services to migrant families.

Before more migrants begin to lose hope of reaching any kind of stability, and as more migrants arrive in the city, Sigcho-López stressed the need for the city, state and federal governments to address the humanitarian crisis.

“The silence from more elected officials is concerning,” he said.

Chicago city officials declined to comment.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Services said in a statement that in the coming weeks, the focus of the mission’s temporary hotel accommodations will shift from an “urgent response focused on supporting mothers, children and families fleeing violence.” and persecution, to provide long-term support for resettlement and permanent housing for migrants.”

The department is implementing a resettlement plan for asylum seekers that includes housing counseling and access to expedited emergency rental assistance, the statement said.

“To promote resilience and self-sufficiency, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) aims to empower asylum seekers to make informed decisions about their future for themselves. This will mean the liquidation of temporary hotel operations in the coming months,” the statement said.

In New York City, the Department of Social Services said the agency is committed to using interagency coordination to connect migrants with mental health support.

“This is an absolutely heartbreaking tragedy, and we are working with the family to support them during this incredibly difficult time,” the emailed statement said.

Ledesma said there is “unprecedented demand” for services in the torture survivors program, which primarily serves asylum seekers. And more doctors and licensed volunteer doctors are needed to care for migrants.

Ledesma said it’s important that shelter leaders watch for signs of depression and suicidal thoughts among migrants and encourage them to seek help, even if the wait time may be long. Many people manifest their mental health problems by sleeping too much, having nightmares, constantly saying they miss their family, experiencing fatigue and feeling a change in mood.

“Find community; create with each other,” said Ledesma.

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