Currently, 39.9 million people, 12.9 percent of the population, living in the United States are foreign-born, the largest number in the nation’s history. The current international, domestic and economic crises have made immigration a divisive social and cultural phenomenon. Many of these refugees arrive with special mental health needs, and the added stressors make matters worse.
The Presidential Task Force developed a report based on the most recent research on psychological factors related to immigration. The report highlights the mental and behavioral health needs of immigrants and the effects of acculturation, discrimination and immigration policy.
Refugees are forced to move by events out of their control. They escape regions where genocide, war, military dictatorship or violations of human rights have occurred. They experience brutality, rape and fear. The violence not only results in suffering but also develops social trauma that destroys their interpersonal relationships and social status.
Their problems don’t end when they reach American soil. The current anti-immigrant climate has given birth to fear, mistrust and discrimination toward refugees. Many of them are discriminated against in employment, neighborhoods, service agencies and schools. They face negativity, hate crimes and exclusions due to their immigration status, skin color, language skills, income and education levels.
An uncertain future, the stress of adjusting to a new society, numerous losses and the focus on their traumatic past may contribute to feelings of low self-esteem, hopelessness and depression among refugee torture survivors. These refugees also have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety conditions. Some experience panic attacks or dissociative episodes. Others turn to alcohol and drugs to cope.
Social service connectors add that many refugees they see are unaware that they suffer from trauma.
“A lot of them are coming here traumatized. They get here, they become re-traumatized. The reason is [culture] shock… they are traumatized, they are depressed and they don’t even know it,” explained one connector who works with refugees from Sierra Leone in the Washington, D.C., area.
Neighborhood relationships are particularly vital for new immigrants, as the new environment can be disorienting. Living in ethnic communities may prevent cultural isolation. However, pressure to integrate may be strong outside their ethnic group, leading to discrimination and its negative consequences.
New immigrants of color who settle in ethnic neighborhoods often have practically no direct, habitual and intimate contact with white, middle-class Americans. Consequently, their opportunities to hear and use English, the quality of schools their children attend and their access to desirable jobs are affected. Concentrated poverty stems from lack of job opportunities, and youth in such neighborhoods are chronically under- or unemployed.
Many refugees have difficulty discussing mental health needs. They face significant stigma in discussing issues like trauma and depression, given the culture they belong to. Combined with lack of insurance, their options are limited.
Foreign populations encounter unique barriers to benefit from health care, such as cross-cultural communication, incongruent health practice beliefs and limited cultural awareness. While there is an effort to acknowledge and address linguistic and cultural barriers, learning by trial-and-error remains the most common form of education on the current American medical system. Hence, there is a great need for mental health services that are not just affordable but culturally relevant as well.
At Sovereign Health, we work to better our patients’ lives in any way we can. If you or a loved one is combating stress, depression or PTSD, you don’t have to do it alone. We are here to help. To learn more about our programs please call our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.
Written by Sana Ahmed, Sovereign Health Group writer