language barriers affect the mental health of immigrants

How language barriers affect the mental health of immigrants

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is an opportunity to shed light on the mental health issues that immigrants are facing today. As the world witnesses many changes, people across the globe have been leaving their home countries due to increased political unrest, worsening economic conditions and armed conflicts. According to the 2022 World Migration Report conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) the world immigrant population increased from 153 million in 1990 to 281 million in 2022, the  equivalent to 3.6%  of the world population. The psychological stress that  immigrants face at home doesn’t end when they leave their country but rather continues as they face the challenges of adapting to a new cultural setting. One of these many challenges is dealing with a language barrier. The impact of not speaking the country’s local language takes a great toll on one’s mental health.

Upon arriving to a new country, immigrants often face acculturative stress which stems from assimilating to new cultural customs. Various studies have shown that this form of stress is directly linked to anxiety and mood disorders. Language barrier plays a significant role in acculturative stress for the following reasons:

Social isolation and discrimination

Moving to a new country means that one must start their career and social life from scratch. However, this can’t be done without learning the country’s language. Learning a new language is time consuming especially when the immigrant is learning a language that belongs to a different language family from their native language. For instance, a Syrian immigrant who speaks Arabic which comes from the semitic language family will have a hard time learning German which comes from the Indo-European language family. This reflects the extent of the linguistic differences between immigrants’ languages and those spoken in host communities. This phenomenon is found in most major immigrant-hosting countries, such as the United States, Canada, France, and Germany. Many other  factors impact the timeframe it takes a person to learn to a passable extent, yet alone master another language: age, aptitude, access to language learning opportunities, availability of time to study, ability to pay, level of education, exposure and many more. Throughout the years-long language learning process, immigrants might feel that they are in a state of social isolation due to their limited ability to communicate. The inability to communicate slows down the immigrants’ integration into their new home and has often led many immigrants to be enclosed within their own communities. In various host communities some locals look down on immigrants who don’t know the local language and discriminate against them since they view them as people who don’t want to assimilate to the country’s cultural customs. This has proven to be psychologically distressing for immigrants especially since it can remind many of them of social challenges and hardships they faced back home.

Inability to enter the workforce

Many immigrants leave their economically-challenged home countries to pursue career opportunities abroad, but they often encounter various challenges upon their arrival. One of the main obstacles they face is the job search process, which can be especially difficult for those who don’t speak the local language. During this period, immigrants may rely on government support programs or on family members for financial support which might make them feel unproductive. Learning the country’s language is usually a requirement for finding better employment, but it usually takes a lot of time. As a result, immigrants may have to take on low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Even after finding a job, many struggle with everyday tasks such as sending emails, interacting with clients, and participating in company meetings due to fear that their language skills would be looked down upon by their peers. A study conducted in the United States by SHRM concluded that 25% of workplace accidents occur due to language barriers. The study suggests that it is preferred for immigrant employees to get trained in their native language to be able to grasp the basics while they learn English. However, that is rare as not all companies have the consideration or in some cases the capability to do so. The fear of causing miscommunication related workplace incidents can lead to increased anxiety amongst immigrant employees who may feel  uncertain about their future career prospects, as they often have to start from the bottom, regardless their level of education and prior experience from their country of origin.

Limiting the effectiveness of mental health services

Receiving healthcare services can be a challenging experience for immigrants especially those who face a language barrier. This can occur in all healthcare services if meaningful language access is not included or considered. It is most apparent in mental healthcare where communication is at the core of providing services. For instance, in the United States, immigrants from Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific backgrounds have reported feeling that they faced significant cultural barriers when trying to access healthcare services. The barriers include a lack of understanding of cultural norms and expectations and sometimes can extend to a lack of sensitivity to the unique challenges faced by immigrants that are accessing care. A study that covered 113 mental health practitioners in Montreal, Canada found that 40% of practitioners face difficulties when dealing with clients who do not speak French or English. The miscommunication between both sides can contribute to underdiagnosing and misdiagnosing mental illness in immigrants by practitioners. If these factors are not taken into account, providers may not be able to deliver an effective treatment.

Language learning requires a practical approach

Learning a new language is almost always difficult and time consuming for immigrants who already have a lot on their hands. Usually, immigrants enroll in government programs or have to take lessons in private language centers. Even though both can be beneficial, however they are met with various limitations. In order to improve the efficiency of their language services, corporations, non-profits, and governmental institutions can consult language solution specialist companies such as Bromberg that provide a wide range of integral language services. These services can help institutions identify their gaps to provide a better language learning experience for learners.