MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES OF IMMIGRANTS

MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES OF IMMIGRANTS

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MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES OF IMMIGRANTS

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Jayshree Winters

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MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES OF IMMIGRANTS

 

Jayshree Winters

 

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© Jayshree Winters 2009

 

A popular American actor/director has been seeing a psychiatrist for psychoanalysis for over 15 years. This may be a rumor or a fact. But this is considered almost fashionable—Avant Garde. Many of Hollywood’s finest have openly discussed their problems, their being in therapy, etc. Stardust, our popular film magazine, has also in the past couple of years rather daringly alluded to some of the mental agonies of our stars.

However, a discussion about mental health, or worse, somebody having psychiatric problems is often carried out in ‘hush-hush’ tones at parties and sometimes rather abruptly stopped as I have often noticed. It just is not the kind of thing about which people want to talk. We, Indians, as a community are rather shy about exposing our vulnerabilities, our problems to even our friends, let alone talk about them openly or seek help.

Why is this so? Being immigrants to a culture so shockingly different from ours is bound to create some mental turbulence at the very least. In general, we absorb these rather well, thanks to our strong inherent coping mechanisms. If anything, we as a community struggle hard to create our own niche in this country and adjust rather well.

However, not all of us are so fortunate. Some of us come here alone “to make it” in this land of plenty. Our families, loved ones are left behind. On top of it, we have to cross one barrier after another – whether it is language or discrimination or professional. Back home, we had strong familial ties to weather these stresses. Here often we have none. Friends and families even with their most helpful intentions are either too scattered distance-wise or perhaps very busy with their own lives and struggles. This kind of social isolation is almost like sensory deprivation for us Indians who are so accustomed to being around others.

Let us take an example of an Indian housewife living in the U.S. In India, after the kids went to school, she could talk to her neighbors, visit family or friends and so on. Frequent vacations at parental homes are so common. Here, often the husband is working at two jobs or working late hours; kids get involved in school activities or TV, and she is left to fend for herself in dealing with her private miseries. While small in themselves, over a period of time, these reach cumulative proportions, often leading to depression, irritability, marital discord, anxiety states, phobias, etc.

Then there are issues of two working partners with or without kids. While in a sense it liberates the woman to achieve on her own, our traditional role models are hard to break. While I do not want to generalize, it seems that it is hard for Indian husbands to relegate their role as ‘husband’. They are good providers, caring and supportive but when it comes to actual day-to-day work like doing the dishes or laundry or cleaning, they often fall back on their traditional roles. It could be that even women sometimes find it hard to let their husbands share the daily chores feeling that these are after all the chores a good wife should fulfill. In any case this puts much added stress on women, again without many outlets to vent their frustrations, often for as simple a reason as not having enough time to do so.

Men on their part have their own struggles often doing two jobs or working overtimes or commuting long distances. They also exposed to a lot of stress in the course of striving to get ahead. In general, it has been my observation that they are even less apt to confide in anyone about any problems they may be having.

Our children face their own sets of problems. Quite early on they become aware of the racial differences, and while the most secure of them do not get touched by it, others develop feelings of inferiority to their American counterparts despite their high intellect and good career standing. Added to these are multiple issues they may have to face, e.g. parental ideologies versus their own. They try to and often want to be part of American mainstream but this is often associated with feelings of guilt or is felt as forsaking parental or more global cultural ‘Indian’ values. Again, very few families are able to or are willing to sit down and discuss openly such touchy issues as dating, pre-marital sex, drugs, etc., which these kids encounter constantly in their schools.

Then there are people who are illegal aliens. They, as a group, seem to even face a lot more stress with fear of deportation constantly hanging like a Sword of Damocles. They are often engaged in menial jobs, of jobs much inferior to their educational levels. This may lead to decreased self-esteem, depression, and its associated complications.

Fear of being labeled crazy or of being socially stigmatized if seeing a psychiatrist are deterrents to facilitating the adjustment process. Also there is the fear that American mental health professionals may not understand us or our problems because of the cultural differences. Financial difficulties may also pose another realistic concern.

There are certain resources for help actually available to the Indian community. For example, the Mental Health Center in Queens, N.Y., AIWA-Asian Indian Women’s Association, Crisis Intervention hotline and several Indian psychiatrists and mental health professionals in the community are available resources.

While the above may apply to the New York area, I am sure that different cities may have their own little resources for help. If there are none, I would hope that they could be established, and awareness of their availability be made well-known. Sometimes the general population is not even aware of the available resources, thus precluding their reaching out for help.

Let’s just hope that we, as a community, become aware of these problems, talk about these issues more openly with each other. We will find that surprisingly enough, others face similar problems. Just sharing our stresses is often cathartic and that seeking help when necessary can prevent a lot of unnecessary turmoil and sometimes tragic consequences for the individual and his or her family.

 

Dr. Jayshree Winters is a practicing psychiatrist in New Jersey. She is a caring and compassionate physician, who is held in high esteem by her patients and the medical community. In recognition of her outstanding achievements in her field, the American Psychiatric Association honored her by naming her a Distinguished Fellow of the Association. Dr. Winters is a tireless advocate of giving back to the society. She volunteers her time to several organizations and serves on the boards of Cancer Care and Health Power for Minorities. She is also an active member of the Rotary International. Dr. Winters is a prolific writer and an eloquent speaker, with frequent radio and TV presentations. She has published numerous articles, and is often sought by the media on coverage related to social, cultural, life adjustment issues, immigrant experiences and mental health issues. Dr. Winters is a Distinguished Fellow, American Psychiatric Association, Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. She is also an accomplished psychoanalyst and holds certification in Disaster Mental Health from the American Red Cross. A graduate of MS University of Baroda, India, she completed her psychiatric training at the New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York. Dr. Winters is also an executive producer of the TV show THEDESIDOCTORS aimed at bringing some of the current medical information to the viewers.

 

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