Psychological Challenges of Immigrationadmin2018-11-03T01:56:53+00:00
ARE YOU PREPARED FOR THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CHALLENGES OF IMMIGRATION?
Immigration is a major life event that creates changes in personal ties and social networks, brings on transition from one socio-economic system to another, leads to changes in family power dynamics, and necessitates a change from a familiar cultural system to a new one. Most new immigrants will have to face unmet expectations and even possible identity crisis. These are normal part of the immigration processes and the feelings and emotions they entail should not be confused with depression or mental health issues.
1. Changes in personal ties and social networks
Your personal ties include your close family, extended family, friends, neighbours and co-workers. The only people immigrating with you are most likely to be your spouse, children and possibly parents, sometimes at a later date. Your cousins, your aunts and uncles and other members of your extended family are not moving to Canada with you. Your friends, your neighbours and your co-workers – all the people you know personally – are not going to be with you in Canada.
Counting how many people you see and get together with in person in any given month or year and comparing it to the number of people who will be living with you in your new country might help you realize how drastically different your life will be. Some immigrants go from being in close personal contact with dozens of people to being a small family of three surrounded by a sea of strangers. Yes, you will keep in touch by phone, online and perhaps go visit your first country once or twice a year but it’s very different compared to being able to touch and see these people in person on a regular basis, which can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation and possible depression-like state if new networks are not being built soon after the immigration.
2. Unmet expectations
You will eventually have new co-workers, new neighbours and even new friends. However, those could be people from different cultures. Many immigrants are eager to meet new people and build new connections. What they don’t expect is that these new ties will not be of the same quality as the old ties. Your new neighbours might just politely say ‘Hi’ and chat with you about the weather but they won’t come over to your house to sit and have tea with you. Also, if you choose to rent an apartment in a large apartment building, be prepared to the fact that people who live there often don’t know their neighbours and don’t even talk to other people in the elevator. If you come from a collective culture where people spend a lot of time together, you might feel really lonely in Canada with its more individualistic culture.
Your new co-workers, no matter how hard you might be trying to become friends with them, might not want to be friends with you because they either already have enough friends or are not willing to connect with you because of the differences in culture. Canadian people often prefer to meet with their friends at a coffee shop to ‘catch up’ after not having seen each other for one or more months. If you come from a culture where your friends are as close to you as your sisters or brothers, you may be surprised at how ‘cold’ and ‘distant’ Canadian friendships are.
If you were expecting that your education will guarantee you a good job in Canada, you may be very disappointed to find out that education doesn’t count as much in Canada as the work experience. And since you won’t have Canadian work experience when you first come to this country, you may have to initially accept a job as a cleaner, a pizza delivery person or a security guard for example, which could lead to the feelings of sadness and worthlessness.
3. New socio-economic system
In some countries, people who have good jobs can afford to have servants in their houses to clean, cook and do other housework. In Canada, with a fixed minimum wage, this is a luxury only rich people can afford. Be prepared to clean your own bathroom, do your own laundry, mop the floors and take care of everything else. In some countries, people can afford to eat out (at a restaurant) all the time but may find that it is too expensive in Canada. The price of food might surprise you, especially if you used to be able to afford fish and plenty of vegetables.
4. New cultural system
How much do you know about Canadian culture? We are not talking about ‘on the surface’ things like dress, food, music and sports. The layer of culture that lies deep underneath – ways of building relationships, ways of showing respect, attitude towards time and risk, approach to raising children, etc. – are a highly emotional part of the culture and is usually the one most immigrants struggle with. For example, do you know that you may offend a senior (older person) in Canada if you get up from your seat and tell them to sit down on the bus? Do you know how to listen to a typical Canadian ‘sandwich’ feedback from a manager or a school teacher? To read about these and other aspects of general Canadian culture, click here. If you want to learn about Canadian workplace culture, check out the sections under “Find a Job and Keep your Job“.
5. Family Power Dynamics
After having lived in Canada for about a year, families with children might begin to experience a change in the power dynamics. This comes from the fact that children are capable of learning the new language very quickly and they will soon outshine their parents when it comes to speaking English. If a child speaks better English than the parents, in social situations outside the house it will give them more power. They will help their parents by translating and explaining but the feeling that their parents might find themselves experiencing in these situations is that of helplessness. Suddenly, it’s not the children who depend on their parents but the parents who depend on their children.
If the grandparents immigrate together with the family and they don’t speak English or speak very limited English, the same inversion of power will occur. From being the respected matriarchs and patriarchs of the family they will suddenly transition into helpless dependents who are not able to go out on their own and need help in any situation that requires communication with the outside world. The way to bring the power dynamics back into balance in these situations is to make sure that the seniors attend English classes where they can learn to communicate in the new language.
6. Identity Crisis
A rarely discussed issue that ensues the immigration is the identity crisis a lot of new immigrants go through. The question ‘Who am I?’ can suddenly become a really painful one as a result of all the changes discussed above. Before the immigration, most immigrants had a clearly defined place in the society and in the family – they had a certain social and economic status. The sudden change of the economic status and the loss of social status can greatly affect an individual. If prior to immigration, a person had a highly respected job – a doctor, an engineer, a manager – the beginning of life in Canada can be particularly hard. Having to accept a survival job, having less money at the disposal coupled with the uncertain financial future, with the added struggle to express themselves in a new language, can really take a toll on an individual’s physical and mental health.
Learning to navigate the new systems (government, healthcare, education, judicial), improving their English (learning the common language expressions such as phrasal verbs and idioms) and the knowledge of the unwritten rules (aka culture) Canadian society lives by can make a big difference in helping new immigrants feel more at home in the new country. Another helpful mind shift that needs to occur is understanding that living in Canada means becoming bi-cultural. Through immigration experience, an individual can get mentally and emotionally stronger and acquire more knowledge about life. The question ‘Who am I?’ will no longer be answered with ‘I’m a (profession)’ or ‘I am (nationality)’ but with ‘I am an immigrant’ with all the rich experience that this entails – belonging to two cultures and not just one, speaking two languages, etc.
Becoming aware of the above discussed challenges is the crucial first step immigrants need to take on their way of dealing with what they have to face in Canada. Both immigrants and people working with immigrants (settlement counselors, medical professionals, etc.) need to know that these feelings and emotions are part of the immigration experience and for this reason are ‘normal’ and should not be diagnosed as ‘depression’ or mental health issues.