Immigrants have become a major part of our national landscape. About 40 million or 20% of people living in the USA are first-or second-generation immigrants. The process of immigration can be very challenging for the immigrant and, at the same time, it is a complex issue.
One of the big challenges that an immigrant faces are participating in a legal process that will lead to residency or citizenship. It is estimated that there are close to 11 million people who are unauthorized to live in the USA. Additionally, close to half of this group does not speak English well enough or at all.
Other areas that add to the difficulties that immigrants face are cultural differences, lack of job skills, changes in roles, potential discrimination, and lack of access to different important resources (e.g., health care, education, housing, etc.).
The above limitations also create a dysfunctional loop as immigrants, then, for these reasons, are not inclined to seek help or treatment. However, the mental and emotional consequences of adjusting and attempting to function in the USA are significant.
Some of the most common mental health issues include anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Anxiety is usually part of the stress of adaptation and of the uncertainty related to moving to a different country and being limited by language barriers. Others start to feel hopeless and feel that are failing. This can contribute to depression. For other immigrants, the process of entering the country has presented extreme, dangerous situations where many experiences traumatic events. In addition, many immigrants may have already been experiencing some of these disorders as they were facing a negative life outlook in their countries of origin. This latter is what drives many to leave their countries. So, in the end, immigrants have to deal with emotional and mental problems that already existed and that are compounded by the immigration experience and process.
Of course, as time goes by, and many of these disorders are not treated, the mental health condition of immigrants then risks deteriorating further. In turn, this also becomes an obstacle to their proper adaptation and functioning, and also, eventually, will result in increased use of community resources.
For those that decide to seek help, there are other barriers. First, is being able to connect with a professional with no cultural bias. Also, the psychologist or professional assisting the immigrant should be able to be cognizant of the person’s culture, belief system, and traditions. Finally, finding psychological assessments or questionnaires that are available in their native language. Also, these instruments need to have the right validity and reliability for these populations. And, yes, ideally finding a psychologist who is fluent in their native language is a significant requisite.
From the previous discussion, it is clear that: a) a large number of immigrants will not only already have but they are also likely to develop mental health issues; b) given the barriers (cultural, financial, time, language) that are part of an immigrant’s reality, most immigrants will tend to not seek treatment; and, c) for those immigrants that decide to pursue treatment, finding the right psychologist or professional is challenging.
Part of the solution to this reality is to help create awareness. Awareness not only among immigrants but also among all of us who interact (socially, work, religious, or community activities) with immigrants. This can help initiate an insight and a conversation that can lead those needing support to seek the right resource. Additionally, professionals who deal with immigrants (e.g., immigration attorneys, medical staff, educators, landlords, employers, etc.) should also be aware of this reality and, in their capacity, help guide the immigrant in reaching out for help.
In the end, the issue of immigrants’ psychological problems, is not only their problem, it is ours as well. By having a healthier population, we will benefit from people who function better. This will also alleviate the load on our community and health resources and will contribute to a more positive society.