Those of us who grew up in developing countries know of the stigma attached to mental health conditions and therefore, to any form of therapy in this area. It is understandable that in my grandparents' generation, there was not much energy or resources to focus on emotional issues. Therefore, families often either pretended that such conditions did not exist or discarded the affected person as "crazy".
Today, there is greater awareness that mental health is as important, if not more, than physical health. We certainly know that they are intricately related and one does not do well without the other. While developing nations seem to take their time recognizing this, the U.S has taken huge strides in the area of mental health. I am grateful that the field of Marriage & Family Therapy was created back in the 50s and 60s and that there are some graduate programs offering excellent training using the family systems perspective.
Immigrant families in the U.S would benefit from using therapy as a resource in their lifelong process of adjusting to a new culture. There has been some conversation around the acculturation process for the children of immigrant parents, particularly in terms of their social life. Children often feel like they are leading two lives, one outside home where they act in accordance to the adopted culture and another, very contrasting one at home. This identity confusion often has a negative impact on the child's well-being.
From my own experience, parents seem to struggle too, especially once their children reach adolescence. Adolescence is generally a stage where both parents and children go through some adjustment and conflict in order to renegotiate their roles. Being an immigrant family compounds this struggle to some extent. The child wants to assert individuality and one way to do so is to shun the parental culture and push for the more familiar one ("why won't you let me go on dates, ALL my friends get to!". The parent(s) may experience this as not only the loss of their "baby" but also a threat to their cultural identity.
Raising children in a new culture also places a strain on the parental relationship. The transition to parenthood is universally a difficult one and again, this is compounded when one has to incorporate two cultures into one's parenting. The isolation from one's own family (parents, siblings etc.) and support structure can add to the stress of new parents, leading to possible conflict in the couple's relationship.
Such conflicts do reduce over time in most cases. However, as we all know, unresolved issues do not tend to go away. They just appear in other forms and during other stages of our lives. Immigrant families, especially those from Asian countries, have created something of a record in terms of achievement and financial success in their adopted country. It is now time for us to acknowledge that the years of hard work and focused attention it takes to create a place for ourselves in unfamiliar territory, does take a toll. What manifests as physical problems may in fact, have an emotional basis.
Facing our limitations and acknowledging that we cannot do it all by ourselves, may be the first step. The next step may be to let go of some redundant notions about mental health, so we can recognize symptoms of anxiety or depression (or other conditions) in us or our children and seek the necessary help.
Sujata V, Ph.D, MFT
Always Learning..through the good AND not-so-good times!