Written by: Zamir Salman
Unlearned Lessons of the Past
Migration is an imperative aspect of human history with a controversy that has transcended with time. The concept of migration has been defined by many scholars as: “A relatively permanent moving away of…migrants, from one geographical location to another, preceded by decision-making on the part of the migrants on the basis of a hierarchically ordered set of values or valued ends and resulting in changes in the interactional set of migrants” (Mangalam, p.8).
Of course, this definition comes with its imprecisions and lack of clarity, as further elaborated by Loue. But nonetheless, it is important to define such concepts to the best ability for the purpose of understanding. For hundreds of years, migration has been met with conversations on criminality, illegality, immorality, and multiple other detrimental, unsubstantiated, and baseless statements that continue to persist even today. It seems that the existing suggestions provided by scholars to reflect and draw upon “lessons of the past” are being entirely disregarded (Rystad). We thus continue to find ourselves living in a flawed, xenophobic world that should never have been normalized, to begin with.
The damaging responses to migration undoubtedly inflict harm upon the mental health of immigrants around the world. One of these individuals is Iris Jegede, a Nigerian immigrant who migrated to the UK when she was around 11 and a half years old. Iris has lived in London for about 7 to 8 years, and currently studies Law at King’s College London with hopes to one day become an immigration officer. I was recently granted the privilege to interview Iris for some insights on her immigration experience and to simply discuss the cruciality of immigrant mental health. It must be acknowledged, however, that every individual, including each and every immigrant, has their own story. Their own narrative. This article does not, in any way, try to negate that truth or generalize one narrative to be representative of entire immigrant populations. It simply hopes to tell Iris’ story with a grander aim to initiate a much-needed discussion on the inadequately covered topic of immigrant mental health. A full transcript of the interview can be found here.
Media Portrayals of the Immigrant
Even today, there seems to be a narrative the media consistently creates that immigrants are either criminals or have “come to steal our jobs”. Such accusations are not only detrimental but also highly misleading to the true reasoning behind most individuals’ migration. Iris speaks on her personal reasoning for migrating from Nigeria to the UK when she asserts that:
Especially as a parent, you want the best for your kids, so if you have the ability then to move to a different country which has better education, free healthcare, you would pick that. And it’s always, like - you will always move from your home country when your home country doesn’t provide the bare necessities that it should as a country, or if the politicians or the government structure is so inefficient. So, you’re almost forced to migrate to a different country because you’re searching for a better life.
It is evident that Iris, like many immigrants today, migrated simply in search of a better life. For instance, a 2014 study showed that participants relocated in Australia from rural Victorian communities to Melbourne for reasons related to educational and employment opportunities, despite feeling a sense of community satisfaction and attachment (Eacott, and Sonn). Such a finding is reflected when Iris says, “I love Nigeria, but I’m slightly resentful towards the country due to its inadequacies.” Others, as Iris also mentions, may migrate for reasons related to safety, although the list of reasons is much longer. And considering the fact that the inadequacies of Nigeria are a historical legacy of years of British colonization, which started in the 18th century and ended only with Nigeria’s independence in 1960 (Kirk-Greene et al.), are Nigerian immigrants not entitled to the better life that was initially robbed from them? One may say, indeed, that the jobs the media so easily defends - that is, those of the white man - were robbed from the exact individuals being framed as the criminals. But as Iris puts so perfectly:
No country was built just by the work of the people in that country. In a way, this world is so globalized, it’s - we’re all part of the puzzle and we’re all crucial to the world running the way it runs. This country (the UK) wouldn’t be here without immigrants, so it is so - I think this sense of patriotism that “this is my country” is just very ignorant and just completely disregards how the world actually was made and how the Western world came to be.
A discourse that simply perpetuates segregation would not grant us any growth and would certainly not do justice to the lessons of our past. Instead of making hypocritical statements that criminalize ‘the other’ and entirely negate the harm the Western world has inflicted - and continues to - upon innumerable countries, we need to start viewing this world as what it is: an interconnected, interdependent, and globalized realm that would crumble without togetherness despite difference.
The Collateral Damage of Ignorance
Ignorant media portrayals are hardly inconsequential. In fact, media coverage has been shown to fundamentally shape the general public’s perception of immigration (Facchini et al., 2017). Such an ‘othering’, alienating discourse could be - and has been - internalized by the public, in turn impacting the experiences of immigrants around the world. Among undocumented Latinx immigrants in the U.S., such depictions have manifested in the form of fears of deportation, maltreatment, and ethnic discrimination by others, and this includes healthcare providers (Ornelas et al.). These individuals have thus been forced to underuse American healthcare until a situation of emergency emerges, which eventually perpetuates and worsens pre-existing health complexities (Ornelas et al.). Iris’ story seems to have a degree of relatability to such experiences:
I’ve always wanted to change my GP because I just didn’t feel like the care was adequate, but I wasn’t - I wasn’t able to because I knew I couldn’t because, if I did, then they would ask me questions. They might ask me for this - which I can’t provide at that moment. So then, it kind of limits your life in so many ways. It can even limit your life in terms of health - in so many diverse ways it can limit you and have a very detrimental effect on your wellbeing.
It seems that not only does the media serve as a direct threat to the mental health of immigrants by instilling fears within them, but those exact fears disable these individuals from seeking the help they so require. This compounds the detriment to immigrants’ mental health, but also physical health. And this estranging discourse is hardly perpetuated solely by the media. It simply requires any entity in power willing and choosing to utilize their platform in a harmful manner.
The Western world and the media’s stigmatizing ‘outcast’ narrative further forces the acculturation of immigrants, as they are given no choice but to ‘blend in’ to a culture that deems theirs unfit. To behave like the white man. Pretend to be what you are not. Certainly, this creates a “feeling of displacement” and a loss of identity, as Iris says, which has been shown by many scholars to impend these individuals’ mental health further (Pumariega et al.; Kirmayer et al.; George et al.) In various parts of the world, the media has also further restricted the job prospects of immigrants by engaging in such disparaging conversations, resulting in prolonged periods of unemployment and economic precarity, which has been shown to be yet another detriment to immigrants’ mental health (KENNEDY, and MCDONALD). And Iris vocalizes exactly this when she articulates that:
I couldn’t have a job, I couldn’t - just things that, um, people take for granted. That normal people are allowed to do. You just have to live like a mouse and make no sound so that you don’t draw attention to yourself. It was a very hard life to live, so that definitely affected my mental health.
The struggles associated with immigration especially affected Iris’ mental health because, as she says, “I was an underaged child”. Children and adolescents, along with having an independent response, have been shown to absorb from their surroundings, which includes being influenced by the response of family members (Pumariega et al.). This results in increased mental health risks for youth, in particular, as their personal struggles are compounded by that of their environment (Pumariega et al.).
There are, of course, innumerable factors that imperil the mental health of immigrants, such as the constant rejections. This could be either implicitly, through microaggressions and nuanced negative portrayals in the media that suggest non-acceptance, or explicitly, through bureaucratic processes that continually reject residency applications, which Iris had, in fact, confronted. The list is endless, but the substance lies in the fact that the mental health of immigrants is constantly placed in jeopardy, which calls for immediate action.
In order to guarantee change, we cannot be complicit, and our silence is exactly that. Public health practitioners need to be made aware of the impacts of immigration and its associated experiences before designing their interventions (George et al.). This includes cognizance of the oppression and marginalization of immigrants, whether this is due to “their race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, or newcomer status” (George et al., p.13632). In other words, what Michael Marmot calls the ‘social determinants of health’ must be incorporated in the interventions of public health experts. In doing so, immigrants can be provided with the relevant, necessary resources to efficiently ameliorate their social connections and ultimately, their state of mind (George et al.).
Regarding social connections, there needs to be a collective effort to provide social support to immigrants, as this has been shown to lessen acculturative stress (George et al.). This includes contributions from health practitioners, but schools may be highly effective in reaching immigrant parents as well (George et al.). This would grant opportunities for parents to expand their social networks. Any positive outcomes would further lead to the betterment of their children’s mental health, who, as previously mentioned, take from their surroundings (George et al.).
Finally, instead of immortalizing a destructive discourse, the media and influential bodies must start covering immigrant’s poor mental health, in which the social determinants are considered, and conversations on social inclusion and equity are propagated (George et al.). This should transcend into public education as well, which would use images and messages appropriate to the culture of the immigrants being considered by the campaigns (George et al.). Health practitioners should also advocate for better public policies that actually consider immigrants and their mental health, and this is predominantly practitioners who are also citizens, as it must be acknowledged that immigrant health practitioners face systemic barriers that may limit their advocacy (George et al.).
To conclude, there has to be a change in the general social attitude towards immigrants, starting with the bewilderingly patriotic “this is my country” narrative. As Iris puts it:
“…we’re genuinely hardworking people who are just in search for a better life, and that is not a crime. And I think for the media to paint it as a crime is just such a shame and a tragedy in itself…”
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