Life After the Honeymoon: Managing the Stress of Migration

By Emma Harries
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

Planes, trains and automobiles – it has never been easier to travel from one side of the world to the other. Journeys that were once unimaginable feats are now made in just a few hours by countless people each day. Accordingly, immigration rates are rising and countries are rapidly becoming more ethnically diverse.

But while migration has become easier, managing the stress associated with it has not. The pressure to navigate the complexities of a new society happens immediately upon arrival. Learning a new language and foreign customs is extremely difficult, especially when you have to go it alone. Immigrants experience social, psychological, and cultural change when adapting to their new home – a process called acculturation. Acculturation occurs when a person or group comes to adopt the practices and values of another culture, while still preserving aspects of their own. This is a challenging process, one that involves considerable psychological adjustment associated with tension and stress. Psychologists use the term ‘acculturative stress’ to describe the impact of adaption to a new culture. Changes in such major areas of functioning like values, beliefs, behaviours, and attitudes foster a unique form of stress marked by anxiety and negative emotions.

A common pattern of acculturation is captured by a U-shaped curve. First, immigrants experience a “honeymoon” period. This brief period, typically lasting a couple of months, is full of excitement. The individual has novel experiences and garners attention and interest from others. But individuals soon experience a “crisis” or “culture shock.” This phase lasts 6 months to a year and is marked by the stress of psychological adjustment. Migrants begin to feel homesick, missing the familiarity of their native country. It is difficult to make close friends, to find necessities like a doctor, and to navigate services such as the bus system. The final stage is “adjustment,” where individuals learn to adjust, learn the language and customs, and learn how to navigate the new culture’s systems. Friendships are built during this phase as individuals begin to find their niche; however, the adjustment phase can take years.

The Acculturation Curve (Heine, 2016)

Some studies suggest alternative patterns, arguing against a “‘one size fits all’ description of how cultural adjustment proceeds over time.” Yet regardless of which exact pattern is followed, researchers tend to agree that most individuals experience a period of stress when adjusting to their new culture. Leaving behind the comforts of home – particularly the familiar customs, traditions, and food – would be a challenge for anyone. However, acculturation takes its hardest toll on older immigrants. Children learn new cultural rules relatively easily, but the adjustment process becomes progressively more difficult after age 15.

One study found that Chinese university students visiting from China and Hong Kong experienced poorer health, especially poorer psychological health, after coming to Canada. The visiting Chinese students found it harder to make friendships and faced more adaptation and communication problems than Chinese-Canadian and non-Chinese Canadian students. Similarly, a survey of 110 Turkish immigrants, aged 20-70 years living in Montreal, revealed that two-thirds were unemployed or underemployed, despite high educational attainments. Their main barriers to employment were “lack of competence in both official languages, difficulty in getting credentials and accreditations recognized in Canada, and lack of Canadian work experience.” These struggles in employment life negatively impacted not only their mental health, but also their future ability to adapt to life in Canada.

Currently 21.9% of Canadians are immigrants, the highest share in 85 years. This means nearly a quarter of Canadians are likely enduring the stress of acculturation. And with Canada’s recent plan to admit nearly one million immigrants over the next three years, these numbers will only continue to grow. Concerned about the implications of these rising numbers, some argue that Canada’s immigration system needs to focus on helping immigrants through language efficiency and mental health support.

Organizations such as B.C.’s MOSAIC aim to do just that. MOSAIC’s mission is to deliver services and harness community support and advocacy to “facilitate meaningful participation of immigrants and refugees in Canadian society.” Similarly, East Metro Youth Services’ Newcomer Program provides youth and their families with support, skills, and training during the acculturation process. The program discusses the importance of positive mental health and connects it to the immigration experience. In Ontario, TNO – The Neighbourhood Organization aids immigrants and refugees with integrating socially, economically, and culturally into Canadian society. The organization offers a range of services, including computer classes, assistance finding jobs, and navigating the free national health care system. Additionally, to connect immigrants with these kinds of organizations, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has an interactive map that “helps newcomers locate services in each province or territory, such as language classes and employment services.”

Without a doubt, moving to a new culture is a difficult process associated with substantial anxiety and stress. So in this age of rapidly increasing migration, organizations like MOSAIC and TNO are vital. Now, more than ever, it is crucial that programs aimed at helping immigrants adjust to their new lives in a new culture are supported. Furthermore, connecting immigrants to such services is equally essential. Community members, both old and new, must work together in order to ensure a healthy population and avoid a mental health crisis.

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Works Cited

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