CIL Position Paper on the Mental Health Impact of the Southern Border Crisis

May 2021

Dear President Biden:

You, Vice President Harris and your administration have taken on a herculean task at our southern border—and we at the Center for Intentional Living (CIL) salute you. Please know that we root for you every day! While we are heartened by the swift action taken during the first weeks and months of your administration to tackle the heartbreaking situation at the southern border, we must also recognize the existence of a serious mental health and humanitarian crisis, which persists today.

We acknowledge that the challenges at our border have now been exacerbated by the huge influx of young people coming in droves to seek refuge. While we see that this has added to the administration’s burden, we stand firm in advocating for those children who have been ruthlessly separated from their families due to the horrific policies of the former administration. They must not be forgotten. In addition to being reunited, families must be supported by a restoration process. We cannot wait for the present situation to be resolved to make these families whole again.

As the co-founders of CIL, we specialize in working on child development, trauma and social ((JUSTICE activism.)) As clinical psychologists who have spent decades working with clients impacted by trauma and mental health issues, we are well aware of the harmful consequences of parent-child separation. We understand how critical it is to provide mental health resources for the affected children and their parents, for the present and over the long term.

The tragic policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border, initiated in 2017, has brought the issue of mental health trauma front and center. We fully support the decisive steps already taken by the Biden-Harris administration to address this crisis. We applaud the creation, in January, of a task force that is charged with reunifying families that are, tragically, still separated, making provisions for mental health services and other support((s)), and also providing recommendations that will ensure that a human tragedy like this is never allowed to happen again.

We ask that the Biden administration’s plans to redress the trauma of parent-child separation include the following initiatives to ensure that adequate mental health support is in place for those affected.

1. Provide adequate funding for mental health support and services for the young children who have been separated from their parents/caregivers

Forcible separation is traumatic for children and parents alike, but children are particularly vulnerable, and those that were interviewed while in detention spoke of a wide variety of symptoms including trouble sleeping, mood shifts, difficulty concentrating and constant anxiety. Perhaps even worse for these children was not knowing where their parents were, and when, if ever, they would see them again.

Since the 1940s, psychologists have known that children need much more than food and shelter from their parents—and that separating children from their parents/caregivers is not only a moral outrage but causes great harm. In a child’s early years, the safety and security of a loved one who touches and talks to them, who responds to their needs, is central to their future emotional and physical development. Children receive an inner sense of wholeness and goodness by being loved, touched, looked at and talked to. For the child, the ability to reach out and be responded to instills hope and resilience. This is the root of faith, that help will come when called for. Neuroscience tells us that mother and child being in face-to-face connection develops the area of the brain devoted to empathy, the ability to feel the feelings of others. As we know first-hand, the absolute worst thing that can happen to a child is losing his/her parents. Safety is gone, security is gone; a sense of irreparable loss occurs. The trauma that results is centered around loss—and the perception that the child’s world is literally ripped apart. The first place of belonging for a young child is in the face and the touch of a parent. When a child is torn from its mother or caretaker, it loses its known world and its ground, akin to falling forever. For a young child, it’s very difficult without the presence of the parent’s face or touch to keep the memory of a parent alive.

Add to the trauma of separation the fear of being in a strange place, perhaps hearing a strange language, and having no knowledge of when you will be reunited with your parent or caregiver. For young children, this trauma of separation is magnified. There is a specific horror of children being kept at vulnerable ages in places where there is no known human face to reflect who they are and that they matter.

Science amply backs up what we know of the impact of how family separation causes severe and long-lasting harm to children. Such highly stressful experiences are more likely than not to cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain development and affecting its short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress—known as toxic stress—can carry lifelong consequences for children.

2. Offer mental health services to older children and teenagers who are also affected by the parent-child separations

Older children respond differently to the trauma of separation. Some become compliant, while others react with rebellion. Over time, most will appear calmer, externally at least, but are internally suffering a toxic stress that will often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic illness, suicidality, addiction and anti-social behavior. For the older children, the costs are very high. These children, who are on the threshold of going out into the world, but then lose the support and grounding of their families, can often turn to another ‘family’ which is typically a gang. Their loneliness and despair often lead them to seek comfort in drugs and alcohol. Affected teenagers will benefit from psychoeducational support, completion of education and occupational training.

3. Because the reunification process, when it happens, is often problematic, funding, resources and support must also be provided for the parents and family members

One of the major challenges that follows parent-child reunification after separation is how the child re-bonds to its parents. This is most critical for the youngest children, whose brains are still developing. When placed in a traumatic situation, their body goes into a massive stress response: rising heart rate and blood pressure and a surge in stress hormone levels. Literally, a life-or-death response. And when reunion comes for these young children it can take weeks, months or even years to reconnect and trust that they will not be left again. Studies show that these children may be unwilling, or unable, to bond with their new caregivers, or that they may have difficulty re-bonding with their parents once they are reunited. This trauma is rooted in a sense of hopelessness. Imagine being separated from your caretaker for what feels like an eternity; and the horror of hopelessness that the mother’s presence will never be restored.

We must acknowledge that the children who are reunited with their parents after a prolonged separation will take a long time to move from hopelessness back to trust. And the parents, who have grieved for their children over the months and even years of separation, will also need robust mental health support.

For all these victims of trauma, the damage can be long-lasting. The genetic makeup of their children and even their children’s children may well bear the legacy of what they are enduring now. The severe psychological and physical damage of trauma can alter how DNA will be physically expressed in future generations. We see the generational effects of trauma in the children of Holocaust survivors, in survivors of the Irish famine, and in the descendants of Native American children who were separated from their parents.

4. Provide reparations for the harm done

It is incumbent on the U.S. government that the reparations cited above are forthcoming, including a clear acknowledgement of the harm done and the government’s responsibility for these human rights violations.

5. Introduce legislation that prevents this kind of abuse and trauma in the future

We strongly urge you to work with Congress to draft, and approve, legislation that prevents this kind of abuse and trauma—which literally used human suffering as a deterrent to stem immigration flows—from ever happening again.

On behalf of the Center for Intentional Living (CIL), we support and thank you for your continued leadership in reparations on this important and urgent issue. We look forward to working with you and joining with other mental health professionals to raise awareness of the mental health costs of the trauma at the southern border and to ensure that this violation of humanity never happens again.


Alexis Johnson, Ph.D. and Judith Sarah Schmidt, Ph.D.



The Center for Intentional Living, based in Westchester, NY, was founded as an experiential learning community, offering enrichment programs, workshops and ongoing study and supervision to health care professionals, the clergy, and those interested in psychological and spiritual growth and transformation. Their three-year Professional Enrichment Program explores psycho-spiritual development across the spectrum from early childhood through the separation-individuation process into adulthood, culminating in the process of conscious aging and dying.

The focus of the Center has shifted in recent years to efforts dedicated to carrying their nearly 50 years of learning and experience to include a focus on social justice. CIL is dedicated to creating a professional community for social action deeply grounded in the psychological truths of what it means to be human.