Historically, mental health has been a large taboo in U.S. society, but there is a growing number of movements and efforts to decrease this stigma1 and to assist American citizen populations with high prevalence rates of mental illness, such as those who have experienced war violence2. But what about immigrants who are experiencing issues with their mental health? Research shows that one in five people living in the U.S. identify as a first- or second-generation immigrant3. With immigrants being a substantial part of the U.S. demographic, it is critical that mental healthcare providers and mental health campaigns begin adequately addressing the unique needs of immigrant clients.
In addition to universally experienced stressors, immigrants may find themselves placed in severely stressful situations that can have a great impact on their mental health. These situations are oftentimes not circumstances an American citizen from an American origin family would experience. For example, immigrant children who experience the detainment of an unauthorized parent are at greater risk for depression and anxiety, and are overall 2.5 times more likely than children without a detained parent to have problems with their mental health4. The detained parents themselves also take severe hits to the quality of both their mental and physical health, due to the abusive tactics used in detention centers4.
While it is important to understand the uniquely severe experiences that can impact the mental health of unauthorized immigrants, it is also important to recognize the ways in which authorized immigrants experience decreases in mental health quality. For example, they may experience depression and anxiety due to feeling lonely in their new surroundings, being separated from family that remained in their country of origin, or dealing with the stress of existing in multiple cultures. These types of issues are related to the acculturation, or adaptation, process of immigrants3. However, other circumstances can also impact their mental health. For example, traumatic experiences endured during the immigration process can lead to PTSD and depression. Additionally, the inability to find employment that matches an immigrant’s expertise can cause anxiety, anger, and low self-worth3.
Many human rights advocates work tirelessly to lobby for policy changes that would improve the immigration process4, but what should be done in the mental healthcare industry to help this population? The APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration recommends clinicians use culturally sensitive diagnostic tools and treatments and recognize the role of factors such as migration experience and acculturation in each individual patients life3. Luckily, various mental healthcare providers are beginning to do just that. For example, the Northern Virginia Family Services Multicultural Center employs Arab-speaking clinicians who can communicate effectively with the Center’s Arab immigrant counseling patients. Saari Amri, one of the Center’s counselors, stresses the importance of validating patient’s acculturative stress and asking the patient about their specific experiences, rather than making assumptions based on their immigrant status5.
It is a step in the right direction that clinics such as the Northern Virginia Family Services Multicultural Center are starting to recognize and attend to the needs of their immigrant patients, but strides still need to be made in terms of culturally sensitive and competent practices being implemented in every mental health setting across the nation. It may seem daunting to implement all the actions necessary to adequately address the mental health needs of immigrant populations, but is absolutely necessary to ensure their wellbeing. Mental healthcare providers of all levels and types should take heed to the APA’s recommendations, and remain open-minded in order to provide the best treatment they can.
- American Mental Wellness Association. (2018). Fighting discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.americanmentalwellness.org/intervention/fighting-stigma/
- World Health Organization. (2012, August 27). Risks to mental health: An overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors, 9. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mental_health/mhgap/risks_to_mental_health_EN_27_08_12.pdf
- APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2013). Working with immigrant-origin clients: An update for mental health professionals. American Psychological Association, 1-11.
- Brabek, K.M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 496-505.
- Meyers, Laurie. (2016, January 27). Immigration’s growing impact on counseling. Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2016/01/immigrations-growing-impact-on-counseling/