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Social connectedness and mental health in the ethnic community

Jenny Khan-Janif (left) wearing her MNZM medal, with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy (Photo Supplied).

Rahul Bhattarai 

Auckland, October 11, 2022

The institutional discrimination against the Indo-Fijians was rampant after the 1987 coup d’état in Fiji, which forced thousands to flee the country in search of a new home.

The experience of the coup had a profound impact on individuals and families and intergenerational trauma continues to be experienced even upon migration impacting on one’s well-being,” says Jennifer Khan-Janif, Human Rights Advocate and Community Development Practitioner based in Auckland.

Ms Khan-Janif moved to Aotearoa in 1989 with her then four-year-old son, while her husband had arrived in Auckland two years prior, preparing for their arrival.

Culture and Language shock

Moving to the new country in her mid-20s she said the culture shock was very real, language barrier, social environment, and at the workplace, but it was more pronounced during festivals.

You really miss your family, especially during the festive season, during Diwali or Eid-Al Fitr. And that is when you felt really lonely and that loss of social connection because you did not have family members with whom you can celebrate,” Ms Khan-Janif said.

The feeling that struck Ms Khan-Janif will be familiar to many other migrants who have moved to New Zealand uprooting their life in their home country, in search of a better life, but only a few realise the challenges that come with it.

The pain of loneliness

In July 2022 Stats NZ reported a significant increase in the proportion of people with poor mental well-being, up from 22% in 2018 to 28% in 2021 for the entire population. The same report also showed people with poor mental well-being are much less likely to be satisfied with life.

“In 2021, 62% of people with poor life satisfaction (0 to 6 out of 10) also had poor mental well-being. The mean life satisfaction rating for those with poor mental well-being was 6.5 out of 10, much lower than the New Zealand average of 7.7,” the report showed.

People feeling lonely had also gone up in 2021.

The proportion of people who said they felt lonely at least a little of the time in the previous four weeks increased, from 39% in 2018 to 43% in 2021. For people aged 65 years and over this proportion increased from 27% in 2018 to 36% in 2021.

This rise in loneliness occurred despite increases in the proportion of people who had face-to-face contact with family at least once a week and the proportion of people who had non-face-to-face contact with family at least once a week (up from 60% and 80% in 2018 to 63% and 83% in 2021, respectively). Face-to-face contact with friends, however, decreased from 74 to 70%,” reported Stats NZ.

The fourth-generation Fijian Indian Ms Khan-Janif learned the hardship her family endured in Fiji, which made her a lot more resilient making her settlement into New Zealand society relatively painless, she said.

However, for many first-time migrants, the probability of falling into severe mental health-related issues triggered due to, social isolation or loss of sense of belonging was real.

And the stigma around mental health issues within the ethnic migrant community prevented people from seeking professional help or even talking about it, she said.

Social connectedness 

The 2018 literature review published by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) emphasised the importance of social connectedness which refers to the social ties between people.

The same study also revealed the correlation between social connectedness and mental health.

“Analysis of New Zealand data has specifically focused on the causality in the relationship between social connectedness and mental health and found that social connectedness was a stronger and more consistent predictor of mental health year-on-year than mental health was of social connectedness,” the study said.

Some of the ways in which new migrants take their place in their new country have been to take proactive efforts by joining social groups and volunteering, finding any way to connect with people, and seeking help if necessary, Khan-Janif said.

Research done by the University of Northern Colorado showed the importance of retaining one’s own culture was important for our well-being.

“The Research also suggests that adherence to one’s ethnic culture, a sense of belonging to ethnic groups, and family relationship factors serve as protective factors against anxiety and depression among immigrant children. Assimilation to the mainstream culture increases the likelihood of depression and anxiety when it is not coupled with the retention of one’s native culture, the healthy perception of ethnic identity, and a strong sense of family support,” the research said.

Rahul Bhattarai is Indian Newslink Reporter based in Auckland.

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