Social isolation, language barriers, and cultural conflicts are just some of the daily life stressors that immigrants face after migrating to a completely new country and culture. These stressors can provoke physiological and psychological distress. Previous research has shown that low cultural consonance, or how little an individual obeys the cultural standards in their everyday lives, is related to psychological distress (Dressler et al., 2013). Cultural consonance is measured by lifestyle, social support, family life, food, and national identity (Downey & Lende, 2012). If one perceives these factors as being insufficient in relation to their culture, then they could be more vulnerable to developing depression. These individuals tend to exhibit negative self schemas about themselves and their lives (as indicated by a low cultural consonance), and will ruminate on their negative self-evaluations, which can lead to a depressive affect.
A recent study compared the direct influence of assimilation to a new culture on depressive symptoms and quality of life. This study was innovative because it compared Spanish-speaking immigrants with epilepsy to English-speaking US-born participants with epilepsy (Myers et al., 2015). Therefore, all participants were suffering from the neurological disorder of epilepsy, which is a population of individuals already at risk for developing depression. Through a series of measures, the researchers found multiple differences between the English-speaking US-born participants and the Spanish-speaking immigrants. In addition to depression levels being significantly higher in the Spanish-speaking immigrants with epilepsy, the results also found that the Hispanic participants with epilepsy were less likely to be prescribed antiepileptic and antidepressant drugs, and had less access to comprehensive health care in comparison to the English-speaking US-born participants with epilepsy (Myers et al., 2015).
The previous study highlighted how immigrants with epilepsy tend to have higher levels of depression in comparison to US-born citizens, but do immigrants overall have a higher risk of developing depression? Another study examined the relationship between mental illnesses and immigration to the US, and compared the immigrant participants to their relatives that remained in their home country of Mexico. By controlling for some genetic variability, this study was able examine just how immigration can impact the mental health of individuals. This study found that the migrants were much more likely to develop depressive and anxiety symptoms than their relatives back in Mexico (Breslau et al., 2011).
The results of both of these studies highlight the importance of cultural consonance in relation to mental illnesses. Adapting to a new culture and lifestyle can lead to depressive affect when one may be forced to leave behind some of their cultural tendencies and the language associated with that culture. For instance, being unable to communicate with health professionals clearly may be one reason why the immigrants in the first study had lower access to health care and medications, which may be also explain why they exhibited higher rates of depression (Myers et al., 2015). These studies show the inequality in care among immigrants and native-born citizens. This inequality can therefore result in immigrants being undertreated for neurological and mental illnesses.
In order to combat these daily life stressors of immigrants, strategies such as development of mental toughness, engagement in meaningful activities, and promotion of cultural understanding have been encouraged as stress-coping mechanisms (Kim & Kim, 2013). These strategies work on building cultural consonance in an individual in hopes of decreasing their chance of developing depressive and anxiety symptoms. Getting acclimated to a new culture can be difficult, but by being open to learning more about the cultural values of a community, one can decrease stress, inhibit the development of mental illnesses, and increase their overall well-being. Embrace your culture today – it’s good for your mental health!
Breslau, J., Borges, G., Tancredi, D., Saito, N., Kravitz, R., Hinton, L., Vega, W., Medina-More, M. E., & Aguilar-Gaxiola, S. (2011). Migration from Mexico to the United States and subsequent risk for depressive and anxiety disorders. JAMA Psychiatry, 68(4), 428-433. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.21
Downey, G., & Lende, D. H. (2012). The Encultured Brain: An introduction to neuroanthropology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Dressler, W. W., Degah II, H. J. F., Balieiro, M. C., & Ernesto dos Santos, J. (2013). Cultural consonance, religion, and psychological distress in an urban community. Paidéia, 23(55), 151-160. doi:10.1590/1982-43272355201302
Kim, H., & Kim, J. (2013). The experience of acculturative stress-related growth from immigrants’ perspectives. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 8, 1-11. doi: 10.3402/qhw.v8i0.21355
Myers, L., Lancman, M., Vasquez-Casals, G., Bonafina, M., Perrine, K., & Sabri, J. (2015). Depression and quality of life in Spanish-speaking immigrant persons with epilepsy compared with those in English-speaking US-born persons with epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior, 51, 146-151. doi: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2015.07.024