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If you're planning to be a practitioner, in just a few years your client list might include patients who've immigrated to the United States from at least a dozen different countries.

But will you know how to treat this diverse, rapidly changing patient population?

Not unless researchers focus more intently on immigrants' unique mental health needs, says Dina Birman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies immigrant and refugee acculturation. The influx of immigrants is so great that it can't be ignored in academic circles or among practitioners, adds Alejandro Morales, PhD, assistant professor of educational, school and counseling psychology at the University of Missouri.

Consider these statistics: From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, far outpacing the 10 percent growth in the total population, according to the U.S. Census. In addition, one in five U.S. residents is a first- or second-generation immigrant, and nearly 25 percent of children and teens have an immigrant parent.

Consider, too, the fact that many are fleeing poverty, war and persecution, and it's clear that psychologists will be needed to help them cope and adjust to their new environment, says Nadine Nakamura, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of La Verne in California who studies gay, lesbian and bisexual immigrants.

"To be able to deliver good services, we need to know much more about these populations," she notes. That means graduate students have burgeoning opportunities to fill knowledge gaps by learning how to responsibly conduct research and design interventions for immigrants and their communities, Nakamura adds.

According to prominent immigration researchers and their students, the most common pitfalls include:

Trying to 'save' the community you study

When you're passionate about working with an immigrant community, the line between research and advocacy may become blurred, says Morales. "Many times, students feel they want to come in and save the community, but that shouldn't be the mentality," he notes.

Interventions that may seem sensible, even imperative, from a Westernized academic perspective could backfire within an immigrant community, says Morales. He cites domestic violence as an example. Students may try to help women escape violent relationships without recognizing that a woman's cultural background may underpin her desire to stay with her spouse or partner. And even if she does leave, Morales says students — and even their clinical supervisors — can't always guarantee that services they refer her to will be culturally sensitive.

Moving too quickly

Before you can design interventions or even study an immigrant community, you have to first earn members' trust, says Corrina Simon, a clinical psychology student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers.

Simon suggests talking with stakeholders in the community — religious leaders, for example — to find out the type of research project that interests the community. She also suggests doing volunteer work to learn more about the population's needs and to make connections.

"Don't do 'drive-by' research," she advises. Swooping in on a community to quickly collect data on deeply personal or traumatic experiences and then leaving can do more harm than good, she says.

Relying on surveys

Quantitative research can tell graduate students a lot about the people they want to study, but it doesn't tell the whole story, says Nakamura. So before you send questionnaires to 100 Mexican immigrants about their experiences of racism, do some in-depth, open-ended interviews, Nakamura suggests. Sometimes, study participants can point you toward critical issues you hadn't even considered.

Don't be afraid to get creative with your research methods, adds Morales. In one of his current research projects, Morales asks Latino immigrants to take photographs of places that make them feel welcome and places that feel inhospitable. He then asks each participant to pick three photos and explain why they elicit certain feelings. Morales also asks his participants to keep a diary of their experiences. Both of these techniques garner information that traditional interviews or surveys wouldn't necessarily provide, he says.

"More and more, we're being challenged to be more creative in how we collect data that will help us answer difficult questions," says Morales.

Lumping all immigrants together

Look at the psychology literature on immigrant groups and you'll find studies that don't explain whether the participants are immigrants, first-generation Americans or ethnic minorities in general, says Birman. In addition to these factors, researchers need to consider where participants emigrated from, under what conditions and when.

"The assumption is that somehow [all immigrant] experience is the same, but we know that it's very different," says Birman.

Another often-ignored variable is age at arrival in the United States. "What it means for children to change culturally is very different than for an adult whose identity is already well established," she says.

And perhaps most important, consider other aspects of immigrants' identities, including gender, social class and occupation, says Nakamura. "These different layers make us who we are," she says.

Working in isolation

Even if you have good support from your department and advisor, it's wise to make connections with researchers in fields other than psychology, says Morales.

Investigators in sociology, education, economics and medicine, for example, can offer insights about immigrant populations that may not be otherwise apparent, he notes. A physician could tell you about obstacles immigrants face in getting essential health care, while an educator might explain how being bilingual affects academic success for immigrant children. Attending conferences is a great way to make connections, he adds.

Technology makes it easier for students to connect and network with researchers outside of their own academic community, says Morales. "Skype can be a great tool to have videoconferences with researchers all over the world," he says. Some students also use Skype to collect interview data, he adds.

Giving up

Conducting research with immigrant populations can be daunting, and you may be tempted to abandon them as a study population. But don't get discouraged, says Birman.

"It's important to do this work" to understand this growing dimension of U.S. society, she says.

Plus, you don't want to pass up on the chance to learn from the strength and resilience of immigrants, many of whom have overcome huge odds to live in this country, says Simon.

"In my eyes, every immigrant I've met is a hero," she says.

Rebecca Voelker is a writer in Chicago.

Further Reading

Learn more about the psychology of immigration and read a new report by the Presidential Task Force on Immigration.