What happened to you? Let’s talk about migration and mental health

arrow

You’ve come a long way, you made it this far. 


Studied hard and worked harder to gain experience. Worked your bum off climbing up the ladder of success. 

You proved to your family, your workmates, your boss, and ultimately to yourself, that you have what it takes.

Then you move countries. You accept any job that would give you an income. 


You happily take on all duties thrown at you, though you question what exactly you would get in return. Your good heart and naïveté trust other people’s bona fides and you don’t ask how much you will get paid and the frequency. 

You’re new here and being new at things sucks. No one knows your worth, your value, they are not familiar with what you’ve done back home. They are afraid you won’t understand their slang and you’re afraid they won’t get your accent. 


Nevertheless, you show them through your strong work ethic, discipline, and motivation that if you can kill it as a waitress imagine what could do if put in the position to work in your professional field. You hope that their eyes would go beyond the waitress and one day someone will offer you a professional job. Right?


1 month 


2 months 


6 months…


One year?


Nothing.


At this point, you ask yourself what you are doing wrong. What is wrong with YOU? 


You’re getting paid nothing and sometimes it’s just enough to cover basic expenses. 

Your initial enthusiasm has faded long ago. You didn’t come to this country to slave away. 

But you’re in a survival mode and don’t have the mental space to put things back into perspective. Our human brain is wired to deal with what it perceives as the immediate threats of a specific environment (1). You transform this isolated experience (that is, failure of finding a professional job) into the narrative of your life and start doubting yourself.


“I don’t want another crap occupation. But…am I still even able to do my professional job?” 


You’ve been a waitress for such a long time, putting up with all sorts of things, that your confidence in performing well in your industry is lost. Given the chance, you wouldn’t even know how to approach things again.


Back home I felt I could eat the world, as we say in my country. In Australia, I felt that the world was eating me.”, says Gabriela Hart, a Food Production Engineer, a marathon runner and a professional migrant woman just like yourself who is now running her own business.


Fast forward

You finally got into the job of your dreams. After years of running the floor, you are invited to play and show everyone what you do best and what you’re passionate about. You made it!

Still…

Ironically, you feel you don’t deserve it. Someone else should be there. 


“How did I even get here? I’m sure that sooner or later someone will uncover this lie and will ask me to leave.And you know what? I wouldn’t even say anything because I’d think that they’re probably right.”


Sound familiar? The so-called impostor syndrome. We all heard about it or know someone who felt that way. But is impostor syndrome a women’s problem? Or better yet, a migrant women’s problem? And should the onus be on us? 

It’s easy to lose self-confidence and forget your self-worth after battling for a long time with visa status, finding a job, uncertainty and feeling temporary (temporary, a concept constructed to regulate migratory fluxes and discriminate between permanent residents and temporary visitors). Prolonged rejection, systemic bias against migrants, and racism would challenge anyone’s mental health.

 

We are required to fit in as it’s too hard for others to embrace our diversity. No one has time for that. Would we still feel misfits if we didn’t have to play by unspoken rules within a society that claims to be multicultural only on paper? 


It’s like we, migrants, can only survive but do not have the right to thrive. Plus, the “temporary” label on our visas indicates that we’re not here to stay for long and we’re taken less seriously in our endeavours for this reason. 

 

Migration & Mental Health

Migration itself is a major life event and may place considerable stress upon any one (2), stress that is compounded by intrinsically migratory experiences, such as securing a job and a house, developing new connections, conforming to new rules and norms, experiencing discrimination and others.


After migrating, the career trajectory can take a very different and unexpected path compared to the one we’ve projected. Some PMWs moved to know that their skills were in high demand, only to find out that getting a job is not that easy (3). Some others moved thinking it would only be for one year but then, suddenly, returning home wasn’t an option anymore (see pandemic, civil wars, unemployment, etc.). 


Not following a linear career is ok however when we feel stuck and not in control of our lives, it seems that someone else got behind the wheel and we’re just passengers. No wonder we feel powerless, hopeless. 

 

Even after we achieve our goals, it feels like we’re still catching up with life, a life that the migration process has put on the back burner.


“Try to avoid burnout,” they say. But avoiding burnout feels like taking a vacation to Bora Bora. Can’t afford it.

Migration is not a process that stops at some point, naturally giving way to a process of assimilation. Migration is a long-term process of negotiating identity, difference, and the right to fully exist and flourish in the new context (4).  Also long-term are its effects on our mental health, a topic we hear more and more about as the pandemic has added an extra layer on top of the migration trauma. 


Several studies on postmigratory experiences and mental illness have shown that women, especially women from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, are at a higher risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) (5). Displacement, discrimination, struggling with a sense of belonging, poor social support and sociocultural adaptation are only some of the determinants for migrant women.   

 

Rewind

What would you do differently if you could get back in time?

What skills did you feel confident about when you were a professional back home? 

Do you feel the same in your current role in Australia? If not, why? 

What do you think is getting in your way to feel confident about those skills again?

How can you better leverage them in your current role?

These are some of the questions you can ask yourself to get back into the game and feel in control again.

But why is finding a job so hard?”

Going about job hunting in the host country in the same way we did back home is a costly mistake. As we have to get used to driving on the left side of the road, the same goes for job hunting. We don’t necessarily have to change our vehicle, but we have to learn, take our time, observe and do research. Specifically, as job seekers, we have to make new connections, change the way we network, acquire local experience. It takes practice and an unlimited amount of patience.


Whether you’re looking for your first professional job in Australia or you’ve been in this process a while, it’s natural to feel anxious, frustrated, sometimes even desperate and confused. There are heaps of information out there about the “best resume tips”, “how to prepare for an interview”, etc and most of them are confusing and contradictory.


That’s why our mentoring program focuses on personalised mock interviews. We reach out to relevant connections within the interviewee’s industry. We do extensive research on the mentee’s dream job before gathering our panel members and ask them to provide individual feedback. Why? The truth is that there’s no one-fits-all formula. We are all different and unique human beings, though our brains are all wired the same. So, instead of looking for generic information, we should focus on our uniqueness to come up with our own formula.

PMW and the outside environment can only provide general guidance.


The answer is within yourself.

 

The Pmw Team

 

References

  1. Emotion Regulation Essentials: Your Brain’s Threat System, Mi-Psych | Mindfulness & Clinical Psychology Solutions, https://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-threat-system
  2. Kirkbride, J., & Jones, P. (2010). Epidemiological aspects of migration and mental illness. In D. Bhugra & S. Gupta (Eds.), Migration and Mental Health (pp. 15-43). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511760990.004
  3. Why declining migration stalls economic recovery, Intheblack.com https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2021/05/01/decline-migration-stalls-economic-recover
  4. Migration & Identity, Rina Benmayor and Andor Skotnes, 1994
  5. Tinghög, P., Al-Saffar, S., Carstensen, J., Nordenfelt L. (2010). The association of immigrant- and non-immigrant specific factors with mental health among immigrants in Sweden. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 56, 74–9.
  6. Migration and Identity: Perspectives From Asia, Europe, and North America, Eric Fong, Maykel Verkuyten, and Susanne Y. P. Choi