President Trump's border policy is a catalyst for drug addiction

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE used a controversial policy of separating young children from their migrant parents at the United States-Mexican border, allegedly to gain political leverage in negotiations with Congress. He claimed to be following a pre-existing law aimed at protecting U.S. citizens from deadly assaults by undocumented immigrants.

"Officials confirmed 1,995 children were separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31." Adults were turned over to the criminal justice system. Their children became the responsibility of Health and Human Services who put them into shelters, often without sufficiently tracking the identities and whereabouts of their parents. So what are the personal and public health consequences of this action?

Everyone knows that fear and anger are primordial responses of parents to separation of their children. We see the same response throughout the animal kingdom. Therefore, as the public watches the separations taking place, many people — regardless of their beliefs about the U.S. immigration policy — watch in horror. Naturally, though, the main victims here are the families and, particularly, the children.


But the current effects on children and their parents are not the worst of it. Forcibly separating children from their parents can have lifelong health implications for the young people.

With separation, children will experience tremendous surges in adrenaline from the terrifying events. Adrenalin is the neurotransmitter that contributes to creating a permanent memory of the experience.

This emotional trauma is one of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) associated with "a wide range of physical and mental health problems throughout a person’s lifespan" including chronic pain, substance use disorders, depression, aggressive behavior, and post traumatic stress disorder. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, unusually difficult childhood experiences lead to a higher ACE score. The higher a child's score, the greater the health risks.

The children who are torn away from their parents find themselves alone in a strange country where they may not know the language or understand the customs. That is enormously stressful.

These children may then be forced to participate in court proceedings without the comfort of having a parent's support. These traumatic events could disrupt a child's developmental processes and lay the seeds for costly medical problems later in life.

This is as true of adolescents, whose brains are still developing, as it is for infants. An article in Esquire discusses the long-term effects of separating children from their parents, and it concludes, "Having a secure attachment to a parent is a big deal."

Back in the 1940’s, renowned scholar and psychologist Abraham Maslow defined security as an essential human need. Only physiological survival requirements such as food and shelter are more important. The absence of, or the threat to, security can cause anxiety, tension, and post-traumatic stress disorder with maladaptive behaviors.

In a TED talk, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris reinforces the gravity of the situation. She explains that we don't just "get over" childhood trauma. Abuse and neglect during childhood can triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer over a lifetime.

In addition, childhood trauma may contribute to drug abuse. Suppressing the memories of the emotional trauma may create a demand for relief. Drugs may become the means to achieve that goal.

As the U.S. works to reduce the supply of drugs through laws and regulation, the country has largely ignored the factors that create the demand for drugs. One such factor is psychological trauma which children who are separated from their families may experience. That may increase their risk of potentially deadly drug abuse later in life.

Even if the migrant children who are separated from their parents are sent back to their countries, they will return with injuries caused by the trauma. This might lead to greater social and health problems in the country that their parent(s) had already deemed unsafe and uninhabitable.

Securing the American borders is important. But, in the process of enforcing our laws, we should not be planting the seeds for more drug abuse and other illnesses because of the way we treat immigrant children.  

Lynn R. Webster, MD is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with Pharma. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Webster is the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD