Venezuelan migrants reset outside a strip mall in Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuelan migrant Katerine Valero, 29, and her children Dariusca, 8, left, and Wilkerson, 4, rest outside a strip mall in Bogota, Colombia, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara.

At what point did you know you had to leave Venezuela? Since moving to Colombia, what has your life been like? When things get tough, where do you find strength and support?

These are among the questions that Christopher Salas-Wright, a professor in the Boston College School of Social Work, plans to ask 500 Venezuelan migrants who have fled to Colombia to escape the economic collapse of their home country. 

The answers, he said, will inform efforts to improve the mental health and well-being of Venezuelans whose large-scale exodus from a previously prosperous nation has led to one of the biggest migration crises in the world.

Past studies have suggested that many of the 7.1 million Venezuelans who have left since 2015—including 2.5 million who moved to Colombia—are experiencing high levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. But Salas-Wright said very little is known about this population, which fled a crisis sparked nearly a decade ago by hyperinflation, a lack of food, and a collapse of public services.

“A huge number of people have left Venezuela in a very short period of time, but there’s been no longitudinal research that I’m aware of looking at their mental health,” said Salas-Wright, who studies the social, cultural, and economic challenges facing immigrants. “Hopefully this study can be the definitive examination of the experiences of Venezuelan migrants in the diaspora.”

Christopher Salas-Wright

Christopher Salas-Wright. Photo by Peter Julian.

The study, backed by a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, is part of a growing body of research into the health and well-being of migrants who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of a humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization reports that many of the 84 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced face severe language barriers, exclusion from political life, and restricted use of health services in their host country. 

Salas-Wright is at the forefront of research into Venezuelan migrants, having published eight studies since 2017. His latest study, in collaboration with his research partners at the University of Florida and the University of Texas at Austin, will be divvied up among the principal investigators. Mildred Maldonado-Molina and Seth J. Schwartz will focus on the experiences of Venezuelans who have migrated to Florida, while Salas-Wright and volunteer project director Maria Fernanda Garcia will zero in on the migrants who have moved to Colombia. 

Salas-Wright and Garcia will ask 500 participants—250 adults and 250 youth aged 12 to 17—to complete a series of surveys every six months for three years. In these surveys, the BC team will ask participants about their experiences in Venezuela before migrating, their experience in Colombia, and their relationships with their families. The pair will also interview a select group of parents and children to develop a deeper understanding of life pre- and post-migration.

Maria Fernanda Garcia

Maria Fernanda Garcia. Courtesy photo.

“It’s safe to assume that many Venezuelans are exposed to very high levels of stress that push them to migrate, but what factors drove people to make that final decision and how do we understand what puts them at risk for experiencing behavioral health issues?” said Salas-Wright. “What can we learn that can help people stay safe and stay strong in the face of stress among this population?”

Salas-Wright and Garcia are working closely with the community in Colombia to shape the study from start to finish—a prime example of BCSSW’s commitment to addressing complex challenges in collaboration with those in need. The team partnered with Corporación Nuevos Rumbos, a nonprofit in Colombia, to help recruit participants, collect data, and disseminate findings to practitioners and community leaders who are working to promote the well-being of Venezuelan migrants. And the duo created a Community Advisory Board, composed of both experts in the field and members of the Venezuelan community, to tailor research questions and interpret findings.

“Members of the community will be giving feedback to the research team on how to interpret findings and fine-tune wording so that our questions makes sense for the population,” said Garcia, who received her doctorate in community psychology from the University of Miami and currently studies immigration and refugee well-being. “I think that’s something that’s very special and not as common as you would think in other research.”