Something to chew on

The all-day conference on migration and mental health at SUNY New Paltz this Friday, October 11, is coming at an opportune time. Though American history records several eras when conflict raged over immigrants and immigration, there have been few more virulent than what’s going on now. More than 50 migration subject-matter experts, many from all over the world and a handful from the Hudson Valley, will participate in this free public event at the Student Union Building. This year’s event will focus, organizers say, on gender, place and identity.

New York State has been generally sympathetic to the struggles that migrants and refugees face, seeing them as valuable contributors to a dynamic society. Under the leadership of Donald Trump, however, the federal government has been negative, treating refugees as unwelcome freeloaders at best and marauding criminals at worst.

“This conference will provide eye-opening research from around the world and firsthand personal accounts about the many internal struggles migrants and refugees face,” said chief conference organizer María Elena Ferrer, director of the New York chapter of the global Athena Network (athenanetworknewyork.org) and a Kingston resident. She cited migrants’ difficulties in adjusting to the new environment of their host community, the complexity of the local system, language difficulties, cultural disparities and adverse experiences as causing distress among migrants and the host community.

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One of her conference presentations will be about the effects of the current U.S. immigration policy on the nation’s overall mental health. The talk will be entitled, “Living in the ICE Age: The Effects of Hostile Immigration Policies on America’s Mental Health.”

“We hope the conference will expand people’s perspectives, see immigrants and their difficulties in a whole new light, and inspire healthcare practitioners, human-services providers and others who work with immigrants to make changes to provide the most effective care and support,” Ferrer said.

 

In an interview, Ulster County social services commissioner Michael Iapoce, who will deliver conference welcoming remarks, explained it was important the community have confidence that social services were being conducted professionally and supportively. That means drilling deeper into individual situations, making qualified assessments, and dealing with emerging needs. The New Paltz conference is particularly relevant to improving the engagement between his department and the community, Iapoce said. It will provide an opportunity to increase collaboration in constructive community problem-solving.

SUNY New Paltz sociology professor Anne Roschelle’s conference paper explores the humanitarian crisis caused by the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America to the Hudson Valley. Despite a lack of support from the federal level, local resource people in the region have been trying to organize an interconnected web of services for these kids. These service providers are fighting an uphill battle, she concludes, “in the context of limited resources, ineffective federal immigration laws, and a country unwilling to see the humanity in these children.”

Ironic entertainment is a part of the social dislocation involved in the immigrant experience. New Paltz assistant professor of musical theatre Katya Stanislavskaya has been developing a musical play called “Resident Alien” that is based on the experiences of a Russian family that emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in the early 1950s. In the final scene, two of the characters examine how to adapt to their new lives without losing who they are. Selections will be performed at the conference by a SUNY New Paltz student cast at 1 p.m.

Of Mexican extraction, Salvador Altamirano-Segura has been program director at Family of Woodstock for almost two decades. Almost every day, he said in an interview, he sees the corrosive effects of increasing economic inequality in the region. It offends his sense of dignity, undermining the basic equal status of all human beings. He sees the effects of increased immigration regulation and new documentation requirements on struggling minorities. At Friday’s conference, he’s scheduled to participate in a session about how services are being adapted for the migrant communities. The situation is hard on the undocumented.

Altamirano-Segura bemoaned increasing dehumanization. “There is no community any more,” he said. “It’s all individuality. People are isolated.” He doesn’t understand that. He marches to a different drummer. “Take the time to listen to someone else’s story,” he said, “and you have no choice but to love them. We need to stop being afraid of people.”

 

The Friday conference is a world event, with dozens of experts from around the globe. The previous seven Athena Network conferences on migration and mental health were all held in Europe. Ferrer was tasked with organizing this one. The leading Athena Network figure, psychiatrist and professor at the University of Barcelona Joseba Achotegui, will deliver the inaugural lecture with a colleague at 9:30 a.m.

Achotegui sees the most important stressors on migrants as the forced separation from loved ones, a rupture in the attachment instinct, the feeling of hopelessness due to a lack of opportunities, and the struggle for survival. He coined the term “migratory mourning” to describe the experience. He likens migrants’ problems to those described in The Odyssey, where the hero, Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), barely survives the difficulties of integrating into a series of new surroundings. “The Ulysses Syndrome,” a more severe and complex condition, is a series of non-pathological mental-health problems that Achotegui contends immigrants can face if their migratory mourning —  no identity, no self-esteem, no social integration, no mental health — is not identified and addressed.

This is not the usual stuff they teach at SUNY New Paltz. It’s sure to stir the Hudson Valley melting pot on Friday, and it’ll give its attendees something to chew on. It hopefully will raise the intellectual stress level of its participants.

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