The migrant problem we’re not talking about: depression

Immigrants, we need to talk. About depression.

Picking up your entire life and trying to transplant it somewhere else is hard work.  It’s hard and it takes a toll.

Hell yeah, we get the job done. But at what cost?

“In my experience migrants are at a far greater risk of mental health issues than the general population,” says Zarélsie Van der Merwe, known as “The Migration Mentor”. Herself an immigrant from South Africa to New Zealand, Van der Merwe provides mentoring and guidance for immigrants who are struggling to integrate.

It’s not just a hunch. The data backs up Van der Merwe’s own observations. Over the last few years numerous studies have shown that many immigrant groups are more prone to depression – and at the same time less likely to actually seek help.

“It’s a perfect storm for migrants: you have legal issues, family separation, the practical hazards of migration, and all the other things that accompany it,” explains Marc Schenker, Director of the Migration and Health Research Center at University of California Davis. “The contributing factors, all the things that contribute to increased stress levels, are huge.”

“It’s a perfect storm for migrants”

There are many reasons for migrating, and each person has their own unique story.

But the higher risk for depression crops up in all migrant types, all around the world.

“Obviously there are unique conditions in each situation depending on the cause of migration – but I would suggest that the immigrant experience is more similar than it is different,” Schenker tells Beyond Borders. “It’s a very real issue.”

Both Canadian and American studies show immigrant mothers are at much higher risk of postpartum depression. A US study found that young Mexicans who migrate to the US are four times more likely to experience depression than their friends and family who stay at home.

Nine out of 10 Central American migrants at clinics in Mexico displayed symptoms of depression, more than one third of refugees in Verona showed psychological distress, and a survey of US expats abroad revealed they were two to three times as likely as those at home to feel depressed or anxious. The list goes on and on.

Fleeing war is almost guaranteed to be a traumatic experience – but even for those who move countries on peaceful terms, moving abroad can be fraught with mental and emotional hurdles.

“Other groups often face depression as a result of one factor at a time – for example a serious illness or a move to another town,” Van der Merwe says.

“Migrants face the combination of a variety of different stressors at once. Getting to know the environment, getting used to everything that is new – from culture, language, systems, interactions, identities, ideologies, markets, products, weather patterns, and more – leads to stresses on the human mind and body, which, over time, can result in mental issues.”

Not to mention the current political climate…

“I don’t have data on it, but one can only extrapolate that the mental health impact is significant,” Schenker remarks.

“There are people who are living in a state of fear, not going out and integrating, not getting food or education or medical services, because of fear of being deported. There are people who go to school and literally don’t know if their parents will be there when they get home.”

And yet immigrants across the globe underutilize health services – including  mental health help.

Houston, Hong Kong, Hamburg – we have a problem.

“In terms of health services there is less utilization among immigrants than by the native born population, whether it’s doctor visits, vaccinations, or emergency room care,” Schenker confirms. “Some percentage of that is economic, some percent is discrimination, and some percent is fear.”

Language barriers, stigmatization, legal status, and cultural differences all play a role into an immigrant’s choice to seek help – or not to.

So what can you do?

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with depression, here are a few suggestions that might help.

1. Accept it


The first step towards handling any difficult situation is acceptance – not to be confused with resignation. Accept that immigrating is a rough experience, and be aware that feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or alone is sometimes likely – and is totally normal. Even when you chose to migrate for a reason like studies or love, there’s bound to be stress involved.

“Many people have no idea,” says Van der Merwe. “Just highlighting information about immigrant depression is very, very helpful.”

2. Build – or become – a support network


Some of the most common advice for those facing depression is to have a support network – but for recent migrants who don’t have a network in their new country, that can be felt as a slap in the face. Still, building a network early on is critical.

“A support network does not have to be family,” Van der Merwe points out. “It can be a community from the same origin or culture – frequently people from the same group who have been in the country for a while act as links or bridges to services.”

And if you yourself can act as a link – do it. If you see someone who’s struggling, speak up, offer a helping hand.

“Community members who have already been exposed to the new ways are in the best position to offer support – and they should be trained to reach out and support new migrants who do not have family and friends.”

3. Don’t be afraid to get professional help – there are ways around “the system”


Generally services are available for migrants – but they are underutilized for various reasons, whether it’s fear or lack of knowledge.

“Seek help wherever you can – don’t wait for it to pass,” Van der Merwe advises.

But if you or someone you know really doesn’t want to meet a professional – for example for fear of deportation or cultural taboos – there are still ways to get help.

“Seek help – don’t wait for it to pass”

The Migration and Health Research Center, for instance, works with promotoras who can reach out to the Latino community.

“They are health aides, women from the community who can convey health message to the general population,” Schenker explains.

“They are trained but they don’t have degrees – they are just caring, compassionate, intelligent people who can meet with young mothers or elders and deal with the health issues that impact people.”

4. Make a list, check it twice

It may sound insensitive – but making a list of all the positives in your new home can actually be a huge help. When things seem rough, actually writing out what’s going well can help. When you actually write down those you can talk to, for instance, you might realize you have a larger support network than you thought.

But don’t stop there. This isn’t an exercise in being grateful. Write down what you miss from home.

Then, go back through the list and write down what might help you feel better. Make action points.

Rather than writing “I hate the food here”, make an action point on your list to find a shop that stocks goodies from home. If you’re struggling to find a job, make an action point to meet a career coach or take a course to learn a new skill. Miss your family and friends? Book in a scheduled, weekly phone call you can always rely on and look forward to.

5. Talk about it

And most importantly – let’s talk about this more. A hell of a lot more.

Immigration is obviously a controversial topic right now, and depression is sometimes stigmatized. Together it’s an even tougher combo.

But we’ve got to talk about – both to create awareness and help each other get better access to resources, and simply to show each other we’re not alone.

“Migration is a survival phenomenon – it’s a tribute to the human spirit”

“Awareness, even before you embark on your immigration journey, is of absolute importance,” Van der Merwe says.

After all, we’re the strong…we’re the ones who dared to move, to change, to seek a better life.

“Migration is a survival process, a survival phenomenon – and what we see are the stronger ones who can endure all of that,” says Schenker.  “It’s mind boggling. . . it’s a tribute to the human spirit.”

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