Mental Health Effects on Separated Families

family separation

Verywell / Catherine Song

When family members are separated from one another, it may impact their mental health, regardless of the reason why. Folx may have little control over their family's separation, and the mental health effects resulting from separation deserve attention.

This article delves into some of the ways in which family members may be separated and discusses how family separation impacts the mental health of both caregivers and children.

Detention and Deportation of Immigrants

According to a 2020 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Report, the number of deportations affecting undocumented immigrant family members and unaccompanied immigrant minors continues to increase each year. Such deportations increased by over 100% between 2018 and 2020, leaving many families vulnerable to the trauma of forced separation.

The American Psychiatric Association explains that this type of stressful experience can impact families in a variety of ways. Separation may cause long-term trauma to children and can increase risk of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Since parents of children born in the United States may themselves be undocumented, they may be at risk of detention and deportation, which can result in the stressful separation of caregivers and children from each other.

When forced separation occurs for family members due to immigration issues, it often includes "the emotional toll of ruptured attachments, loss of regular communication, and feeling of isolation," and may also result in the loss of the primary breadwinner or caregiver, which may escalate financial tension.

Families are bound to be negatively impacted in terms of mental health by such disruptions to the lives of parents, children, and relatives, which can often contribute to further adversity for these folx over time.

Refugee Resettlement and Family Separation

According to a 2018 community-based mental health intervention study, family separation caused distress for refugees due to concern for family members still in danger, feelings of powerlessness, and cultural challenges with resettlement, which was associated with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Given the mental health impacts of family separation on refugees, it may be difficult for newcomers to adjust to their new setting.

Unfortunately, government policies like an Executive Order that substantially reduced the number of refugees to be accepted into the U.S. alongside immigration bans from some countries, and DNA testing requirements for refugee family reunification do not bode well for their mental health.

While refugees may have fled to the relative physical safety that the U.S. may provide, their mental health is likely to be negatively impacted by restrictive government policies that contribute to family separation.

Experiences of Military-Connected Family Members

A 2019 review of 86 research studies found that children in military-connected families report more mental health issues than those in civilian ones. Mental health is impacted by military-related mobility and parental deployment due to such factors as relocation stress, family separation, parentification (child takes role of parent), parental injury, and parental PTSD.

Given how much uncertainty can often be involved in military deployments, its impact on the mental health of the civilian caregivers and children may be significant, despite the best efforts of loved ones to manage the effects of these absences and the worry over their safety.

Effects of Parental Divorce

According to a 2019 meta-analysis of the long-term effects of parental divorce on mental health, the children of these relationships were at higher risk of developing depression and/or anxiety, attempting suicide, and abusing substances like alcohol and drugs.

While parental divorce may result in shared time with children, the impact of such disruption of the family unit on mental health may still be substantial, especially given how such separations may result in additional financial challenges for both caregivers, which can contribute to further stress.

The Incarceration of Family Members

The incarceration of fathers can have a serious impact on their biological children's well-being. A 2020 study showed that affected children were at risk for poor mental health outcomes and socioeconomic stress.

The NAACP notes that Black men are imprisoned at five times the rate of White men in the U.S. This overrepresentation of Black fathers in the prison system disproportionately harms their children in terms of mental health as well as access to the financial stability that can often limit stress for folx.

Foster Care and Family Separation

Despite how difficult it can be for family members to be separated, it is sometimes necessary for children to be removed from the care of their families for their own safety.

According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, preliminary data estimates that there were 423,997 children in foster care as of September 30, 2019.

The AFCARS Statistics For 2019


Reason for Discharge:

  • 47% return to live with parent(s) or a primary caregiver
  • 26% had been adopted
  • 11% went to reside with a guardian
  • 8% were emancipated
  • 6% went to reside with another relative
  • 1% transfer to another agency


Researchers have explored the mental health challenges of children in foster care, and studies show that by the age of 18, they were 2 to 4 times more likely to report mental health diagnoses, in comparison to youth of the same age who were not in foster care.

While these mental health challenges may be related to factors other than family separation, including neglect and trauma, such disruption of attachments from parents likely contribute to these concerns as well.

Even when family separation is in the best interest of its most vulnerable members, there may still be negative mental health impacts associated with this, so compassion can go a long way to support children in foster care.

A Word From Verywell

Regardless of why family members may be separated, the mental health effects cannot be overstated, especially for children, who are often not responsible for the situation that they face.

Deportation, refugee resettlement, deployment, divorce, incarceration, and entry into foster care are just some of the ways in which families may be separated in the U.S. but there may be many more reasons why individuals no longer reside together.

Whatever the reason for family separation, there are usually negative mental health impacts as a result and these deserve attention to be addressed effectively.

While folx may have little control over the separation of their families, getting the necessary mental health support to deal with the impacts of those losses may be well worth the effort to better cope with the situation.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Psychiatric Association. APA statement opposing separation of children from parents at the border. Published May 30, 2018.

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  5. Cramm H, McColl M, Aiken A, Williams A. The mental health of military-connected children: A scoping reviewJ Child Fam Stud. 2019;28(7):1725-1735. doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01402-y

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  8. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Criminal justice fact sheet. Updated 2020. 

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