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Stressors push migrant youth to the brink of suicide



Removing stigma and shame around mental illness can prevent teenage suicide

Praneeta Mahajan
Hamilton, March 17, 2023

Teenage suicides are a devastating issue that affects families and communities across New Zealand, but it is more prevalent in migrant families.

According to a recent study by the University of Auckland, young people from migrant backgrounds are at a higher risk of suicide than their New Zealand-born counterparts.

This issue requires a nuanced approach that addresses the unique challenges faced by migrant youth and their families.

Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, a Samoan-New Zealand academic and researcher, said that migrant youth face unique challenges that can contribute to the increased risk of suicide.

“Migrant youth face a range of unique stressors that can increase their risk of suicide, including social isolation, discrimination, and acculturation stress. These stressors can be compounded by a lack of access to culturally appropriate mental health services and support networks.”

Navigating cultural differences

One of the critical challenges facing migrant families is navigating the cultural differences between their country of origin and New Zealand.

Dr Tiatia-Seath said that immigrant families have to negotiate between multiple cultural norms and expectations, which can be challenging and stressful for young people.

This leads to confusion, disconnection, and cultural conflict, which can be particularly acute for second-generation migrants who may feel caught between their parents’ cultural expectations and the pressures of growing up in a different cultural context.

Dr Tiatia-Seath emphasises the importance of providing culturally appropriate mental health services and support networks that can address the unique needs and challenges faced by migrant youth and their families. This includes initiatives that promote cultural competence among mental health professionals, as well as support networks that incorporate traditional healing practices and community-based support.

Support networks

The importance of community-based support networks is highlighted by the experiences of migrant youth themselves.

Fatima, a 17-year-old from a migrant family, said, “When I was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, I did not feel comfortable talking to anyone in my family or community. I did think that they would understand or accept what I was going through. When you are struggling, you want support from someone who understands the cultural pressures and norms that navigate your life. It is difficult for someone to identify with your struggles if the things that matter to you seem trivial to them.”

These challenges can make it difficult for young people to feel connected to their culture, community, and support networks. In addition, migrant families may experience additional stressors related to migration and settlement, including financial instability and social isolation.

Breaking language barriers

In addition, language barriers can make it difficult for young people and their families to access mental health services and support. Dr Tiatia-Seath notes: “We need to ensure that mental health services are accessible and available in a range of languages and that they are culturally responsive to the needs of migrant families.”

This sentiment is echoed by the New Zealand government’s Suicide Prevention Strategy, which emphasises the importance of providing culturally appropriate and responsive mental health services to high-risk populations, including migrants and refugees.

Breaking Stigma

Another critical element of suicide prevention in migrant families is addressing the stigma and shame that can be associated with mental illness and seeking help.

Dr Tiatia-Seath said that in some cultures, mental illness is stigmatised and seen as a personal weakness or failure.

“We need to create a culture where seeking help for mental health issues is seen as a sign of strength, not weakness,” he said.

This requires a community-wide effort to break down stigma and promote mental health literacy, including education and awareness campaigns that address the unique challenges faced by migrant families.

Dr Andrew Chan, a mental health researcher and academic, said that cultural competence and sensitivity are critical components of suicide prevention in migrant families.

“This includes understanding the cultural norms and values of different communities, as well as addressing the specific challenges and stressors that may be unique to different migrant groups. For example, Maori and Pacific Islander youth may experience different challenges related to migration and settlement than Asian or European youth. By understanding and addressing these differences, mental health professionals and community organisations can provide more effective and culturally responsive support to migrant families and youth,” he said.

The Way Forward

In a report published by the Health Quality and Safety Commission of New Zealand, Professor Rob Kydd Chair of the Suicide Mortality Review Committee said, “Like Māori and Pacific peoples, Asian people draw strength from family and whānau whakapapa, and their connectedness to their culture, beliefs and language. We should acknowledge these strengths and support Asian communities to build on them. Tackling racism in all its forms, along with social disadvantage, isolation and exclusion, will have a large impact on suicide rates. Building a health and social system that is compassionate, connected and equitable will mean that communities are resourced, no one is left alone, and help is there when and where it is needed. Ultimately, when we create a safe environment for children, help will not be needed in the first place.”

Overall, suicide prevention in migrant families in New Zealand requires a comprehensive and culturally responsive approach that recognises and addresses the unique challenges and stressors faced by these communities.

By providing accessible and culturally appropriate mental health services and support, promoting social inclusion and community integration, and breaking down stigma and shame around mental illness, we can work to prevent teenage suicide in migrant families and ensure that all young people have the support and resources they need to thrive.

Praneeta Mahajan is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Hamilton.

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