The Effects of State Terrorism and Exile on Indigenous Guatemalan Refugee Children: A Mental Health Assessment and an Analysis of Children's Narratives


  • The author wishes to thank Sheryl Olson, Michael Sayette, Scott Bunce, and Jocelyn Fiers-tien for helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Thanks also to the Centro de Investigaciónes en Salud de Comitán (CISC), in Chiapas, Mexico, and in particular to Pablo Farias, Associate Director of the Centro, for the critical support provided to this study. The interview data used in this study were transcribed by Amy Adorno, Sergio Criado, Adriana Irizarry, and Gabriela Teran. Finally, the author wishes to express his deep gratitude to the teachers in the two refugee camps in which this research was conducted. Without their collaboration, this study would not have been possible. This research was supported by grants from the Institute of Intercultural Studies, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), and the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. This research was completed while the author was a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. Currently the author is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

concerning this article should be addressed to Kenneth E. Miller, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607–7137.


This study examined the mental health and psychosocial development of 58 Guatemalan Mayan Indian children living in 2 refugee camps in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Conventional assessment instruments were adapted for use in this unique context, and semistructured interviews were utilized to gather phenomenological data from children regarding various developmental, sociocultural, and political topics. Data are presented that show minimal evidence of psychological trauma in this sample, and various factors are suggested to account for this finding. In addition, data are presented showing a positive relationship between children's mental health and the health status (physical and mental) of their mothers. In particular, a strong association was found between depressive symptomatology in girls and poor health status in their mothers. Qualitative data from the interviews are presented, focusing on children's understandings of why their families fled Guatemala, the nature and causes of the violence, and their thoughts and feelings regarding the prospect of returning to Guatemala at some future point.