Immigrants & Mental Health
This newsletter is made possible with the support of the American Diversity Group (ADG), based in Maryland. ADG is organized to bring together a diverse group of people to build and sustain a healthy community and enrich lives. Contact the ADG by visiting their website.
I am an immigrant to the United States. I legally immigrated here in my late teens. Despite my legal status and U.S. citizenship, I have experienced many negative stressors that new and established immigrants face in society. In their Resolution on Immigrant Children, Youth, and Their Families (2008), the American Psychological Association (APA) informs us that immigrants to the United States experience unique stresses, prejudice, and poverty and can be considered at-risk subpopulations for health-related, emotional, and behavioral problems.
The concept of immigration can be divided into before, during, and after migration steps. The good and bad experiences at each stage of the immigration process contribute to their mental health status. I shall break down concepts and elaborate on their actual implications in future newsletters. However, for now, here are some of my broad findings on the topic. The main points for us to consider in this introductory newsletter are as follows:
Most immigrants face linguistic and cultural differences in their new homeland. Regardless of their education levels or how well they might speak English, problems with usage differences, accents, and slang hinder communication. If the immigrant does not speak English, the issues are exponentially magnified as they become entirely dependent on strangers' assistance and ability to react to the immigrants' articulated needs. The culture of the erstwhile home country, societal mores, and taboos inform the immigrant's behaviors, attitudes, differences in dress codes, attitudes toward others, and the ability to establish trust with the local population. An outward lack of assimilation accentuates immigrants' anxieties about finding jobs, relationships, friendships, jobs, and general societal acceptance. The amount of flexibility the immigrant demonstrates in dealing with these problems affects their mental state:
Suppose the immigrant is too lax and accepting of the new society. In that case, they might feel guilty about estranging everything they held dear before.
Supposing the immigrant is too traditional, they might feel highly stressed when faced with events they observe daily and might deem inappropriate, immoral, or even illegal.
Regardless of the immigrants' cultural adherence, if they have dedicated support upon their arrival into the country and beyond, it would make a significant difference in their lives. They would have someone dedicated to guiding them through their new reality to lessen the shocks they experience adjusting to a new life in a new country. Depending on the pre-immigration circumstances, the ideal support structure may consist of extended family, friends, or community organizations such as the American Diversity Group (ADG). The critical factors in the type of support structure best suited for the immigrant are this:
Are the people involved genuinely concerned for the immigrant's well-being?
Are they capable of providing the various kinds of assistance the immigrant might need, including mental and physical health, food, shelter, societal integration, etc.?
Racism & Radicalization
There always has been an intense dislike of non-White immigrants simmering deep within the local communities in the United States. Racism (individual and institutional), nationalism, intolerance, and religious mandates focused on non-Christian immigrants have been routine if somewhat hidden in the societal configurations. I have repeatedly experienced most of these personally in my stay here in the United States. Since around 2015, these retrograde forces have emerged and started radicalizing society very publicly.
Today, the push-back we face as immigrants who cannot blend in with the majority population due to our skin color and culture is even worse. As recently as some months to a few years ago, I have been told to "go back to my country" by my students, scolded for entering my own office building, not by the security guards, mind you, but by someone who worked in my office, and yelled at for not being Christian by total strangers. The APA states that "the experience of immigration has immediate implications for the psychological and social well-being of individuals and families which are especially intense for children, people of color," and all other categories that differentiate them from the population. This radicalization has affected individuals and entire institutions in education, law enforcement, medicine, etc. The constant stress of living with this burden is a critical contributor to the rise in mental health problems among immigrants, people of color, and other minorities.
As immigrants, we face unique circumstances that make safeguarding our mental well-being more complicated. Therefore, we must mitigate all possible mental health risk factors to the best of our abilities. We must acknowledge the problem, accept any treatment if necessary, and establish a strong foundation for our families and children to prosper. Our incredible cultures, the advice of our respected elders, and even our instincts sometimes tell us to hide our mental problems from society to appear "normal" and continue to suffer in silence. We should remember, however, that times have changed. It is not considered shameful to ask for mental health help here in the United States. Groups such as ADG stand ready to assist in ensuring a better future for you and your loved ones.
We need to recognize that the best way to maintain our proud cultural and family traditions here in a new country is by being fully contributing members of society. Proudly represent yourself in the community without feeling shame about being different. Remember that these differences are not a curse... they allow us to maintain our individuality proudly. Finally, let us be thankful that, as immigrant brothers and sisters, we are fortunate to celebrate our differences together in the great United States of America.
The author, Ruchir Bakshi, is a combat veteran. He maintains a personal newsletter about his own mental health struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Please read and subscribe.