The topic of mental health can seem so expansive that we neglect to even discuss it. Our brains, and what happens within them is a much less matter-of-fact issue than something like arthritis, or a broken bone. Nevertheless, most of us, at some point in our lives will experience need with regards to our mental health. Be it an occurrence of depression, anxiety, or any of the other myriad of emotional factors that play into our wellbeing, the ways in which we experience, and choose to address these things vary greatly person to person. So, it only makes sense that our treatment should be the same: unique. Taking a one size fits all approach to something like mental health, further neglects to acknowledge the diversity of lived experiences within the United States population. This population continues to diversity with the increase in newcomer immigrants and their families in the United States. The American Psychological Association reports that since the year 1990, approximately one million new immigrants have entered into the country1. The within-group diversity amongst this population also deserves attention, as more than three quarters of immigrants arriving post 1965 are non-white, coming primarily from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America1. As this population continues to grow, so do their families. This necessitates an integration of not only adult immigrant needs in the conversation about mental health but also their children. So, what can those involved in the mental health sector of the nation do to best serve the immigrant population?
It begins with a background knowledge of the immigration experience. While practitioners must be careful to avoid adopting a one size fits all model for treatment, there are a variety of factors that are consistent across immigrant groups simply based on the experience of entering into a new country1. These can be summed up by the behavioral and psychological integration of home and host culture that immigrants must rectify in order to live a ‘normal’ life in the United States1. Things like learning a new language, adopting new social behaviors, applying for jobs in an unfamiliar way and the general traumatic experiences that often result from immigration, are all paramount in understanding the unique mental health needs of the immigrant population1,2.
Once this awareness is established, it is up to the communities that immigrants are a part of to provide the adequate resources to moderate the effects of experiences that may lead to poor mental health outcomes. Two primary examples of these communities are religious and educational centers1. Both of these settings provide the opportunity for a formation of close-knit relationships between immigrant and native-born individuals, providing comfort and solace to those who may feel on the outskirts of society. The formation of relationships between these marginalized individuals and other community members can have a phenomenally positive impact on their mental wellbeing, an impact extending in significance beyond just the situation where the relationship exists. For example, establishing a common faith through religion, may make isolated individuals feel as if they matter to something greater than just themselves1. This can lead to an expansion of world-view, stimulating conversation that extends beyond the religious center. Finding a common ground through belief, or strength through a higher power has been shown to have a significant effect in improving depressive symptoms especially through changing life circumstances.
Moving to an examination of the educational community, schools can have a profound impact on the mental health of their immigrant students. As is highlighted above, this begins with an understanding of the way children experience immigration. Things like prolonged family separation, potential deportation of a parent, and the inability of a parent to advocate for their child due to a lack of English fluency can have dire mental health consequences for youngsters even after they have arrived in the United States2. In order to provide a safe and inclusive environment for immigrant youth, educators and mental health professionals within the school, must take steps to integrate a student’s family culture into the classroom. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as bringing objects of home culture significance into classroom, acknowledging days of significance, and creating opportunities to create relationships between teachers and parents.
Through an increased understanding of, and consideration for the immigrant experience of both children and adults in the United States, mental health outcomes can be drastically improved. The most essential element is the inclusion and formation of community. Stimulating conversation and breaking down the barriers between and within immigrant groups creates a sense of belonging many newcomers lack. Using schools and religious organizations as tools to foster this togetherness will have lasting effects in the lives of the ever growing immigrant population.
- APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with Immigrant- Origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
- Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. Migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000011