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Common mental health problems in immigrants

Immigration results in a large number of potential psychological problems. Changing environment can be stressful experience. There are many issues attached to migration like culture shock, migration-associated loss, acculturative stress, lack of social support, linguistic barriers and even post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Kirmayer, et al., (2011, p. 961), there are three major changes / stressors when considering migration: “changes in personal ties and social networks, changing socio-economic system to another, and the shift from one cultural system to another”.

Preferably, detection of mental health problems would happen at the level of primary care. However preventing and recognizing early symptoms of mental health illnesses among immigrants may be challenging because of linguistic and cultural differences. It may be also difficult for the host mental health professionals to recognize the symptoms and to communicate efficiently. There are many aspects of mental health awareness like patterns of seeking for help, ways of coping and knowledge about mental health itself. It is a complex process that need to be acknowledged by the immigrants and the hosts. Although newcomers come from different backgrounds, it is possible to distinguish three phases that are related to the adversities of migration. One experiences stress before, during and after relocation (Kirmayer, et al., 2011). In the pre-emigration phase one can feel insecurity about employment and economic stability. In the phase of moving to a different country there are many potential challenges that may be experienced by the immigrants from countries where the atrocities happen. These people there are at higher risk than the general population in terms of psychiatric risks due to war, torture, exile, forced migration and uncertainty about the status that they may get in the country where they get asylum. Sometimes they have to spend a long time in refugee camps with poor conditions. It is also important to mention that there is a potential risk of experiencing racism and discrimination in the country in which they are seeking asylum.

The third phase when the resettlement is completed can bring other problems that need to be addressed. One of the biggest things to deal with is the migration-associated loss. After experiencing relief, one can experience disillusionment and loose the initial hopes and expectations. Adjusting to a new environment can also elicit frustration because of linguistic differences, acculturative stress, structural barriers and discrimination. Immigrants often experience difficulties in terms of having their education recognized. They often work below their qualifications. One of the most challenging aspect is the lack of social network and feeling alienated. One can feel lonely in a new environment and it can be straining to assimilate to new society. Questions and doubts about individual identity may arise as well. These issues may lead to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patricia Arredondo-Dowd (1981), writes that even the different faces on the streets may be seen by the immigrants as unfamiliar and unfriendly. In these circumstances it is even more difficult to seek for help. Often in developing countries where the immigrants come from mental health is stigmatized and associated with psychiatric treatment. It can elicit fear as explaining psychological issues may be almost impossible when there are no linguistically accessible services. People may fear being stigmatized and they may be afraid that the psychiatric diagnosis may affect their families as well. Above all, many people do not have knowledge of mental health illnesses, so they are more likely to attribute the symptoms to physical health. They may use different defense mechanisms like projection, displacement or reaction formation. They may experience frustration and anger (Arredondo-Dowd, 1981). I would not hesitate to say that emigration is always a big challenge.


Arredondo-Dowd, P. (1981). Personal Loss and Grief as a Result of Immigration. Personnel & Guidance Journal, 59 (6), 376 – 380.
Retrieved from:
Kirmayer, L. J., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A., Guzder, J., Hassan, G., Rousseau, C., Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: general approach in primary care. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.090292

author: Agnieszka Kulczycka-Dopiera

Perspektywy. Ośrodek Relacji i Zdrowia Psychicznego
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