Letter to the Editor

Inter-cultural experiences and mental health

Re: The Effects of Inter-Cultural Experiences on Mental Health and Personal Identity

Dear Editors:

During the first few years of moving to a new country, many experience depression and high anxiety.

My father came to North America alone at a young age with no money and experienced many hardships along the way. I was privileged to experience the change in culture under the wing of my parents at a young age, which was easier than if I were to have done it alone at an older age. I was also born a Canadian citizen, and never had to experience the process of immigration.

Many people assume that immigrants are faced with a binary choice upon moving to a new country: whether to adopt the new culture in which they are entering, or to keep their own cultural beliefs and practices. I present a third possible option, being able to accept and choose good aspects of both cultures and combine them in everyday life.

Growing up, I’ve come to know many friends and family who have suffered long and short periods of depression stemming from their inter-cultural experience when immigrating to Canada. However, I want to start with the positives of the stories I’ve heard and often experienced myself. When travelling at a young age, one's beliefs are still malleable and it’s much easier to adopt a new culture at a comfortable pace. Another advantage in travelling at a young age is being able to quickly overcome the language barrier. While this all may sound like a walk in the park, a negative aspect does in fact dilute the picture.

Things start to change for those brought up with two different cultural backgrounds. Core beliefs and customs from each culture often contradict each other in multiple ways. While your peers are going through their teenage angst phase, you experience even harsher feelings of not belonging as a person with two different backgrounds.

This feeling of belonging is extremely important, especially for those at a younger age. The lack of belonging can have extreme effects on a person's motivation to participate in everyday activities and their mental wellbeing.

Let's look at a hypothetical example. You’re now 20 years old. The first half of your life, you were raised in a conservative society, you were brought up with beliefs and practices that condemn homosexuality, see certain cultures as inherently wrong, and see the local religion as the highest form of law in the country.

At the age of 10 you enter Canada. As you grow up with friends, you make constant social faux-pas, and learn that your beliefs were questionable. As you begin to distance yourself from your past, you question how you could have so easily held those beliefs. How can your friends and family back home still believe that? Slowly, feelings of shame begin to creep up on you.

Often younger individuals choose assimilation in order to escape social ridicule and achieve acceptance from their peers. There is a constant search to belong. Thanks to the liberal upbringing of my parents, I didn’t personally experience this problem to the same extent.

Now you have become a person who champions themselves in beliefs that promote the secular state, acceptance of all cultures, right and freedom for women and the LGBT community, and a whole set of other liberal values.

While almost everyone would agree that this is a step in the right direction, it might actually have unseen negative side-effects. This is especially pronounced in cases where most of your extended family still lives in your country of origin and maintains those conservative beliefs.

You begin to distance yourself from those loved ones. You no longer feel that you belong in that society, and truthfully speaking, you can’t go back to live there comfortably because of how much you have changed.

For those who are visible minorities, and have chosen to keep their original names, at first glance, it might seem they don’t belong in their new society either. You’re left in a constant back and forth battle, losing self-confidence in the process, and constantly questioning your own identity.

Yes, the conservative society you come from had questionable beliefs, but it’s not a black or white situation. Don’t try to quickly revert to one, or choose to ignore the other.

Try your best to show people in both societies and belief systems the good side of their counterparts. Try to undo what the media so easily achieves in both societies: alienating one from another through language that actively promotes an “us versus them” mentality.

Most societies can create a more hospitable environment. This not only benefits immigrants, but their own lives as well by ridding their language of these binaries and ensuring day-to-day interactions do not promote this mentality. Even in Canada, one of the most accepting and multicultural societies in the world, this problem still persists.

Living in a new culture can have tremendous effects on mental health, and requires a high level of commitment from the individuals who emigrate from other cultures to feel like they belong in any new society. It still remains a responsibility of those who receive new members of their societies to accept and understand the difficulty that these individuals can face.

Mohammad Kasraee
ArtSci ’14

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