Updated: Aug 10, 2021
What does it feel like having one foot in one world, and one foot in another? What does it feel like being pulled into two completely different directions? Well if you ask any child of immigrant parents living in the US, you will definitely get a clear explanation of this dichotomy.
I was born in California by a mother who moved to the US from Mexico and a father who moved to the US from Costa Rica. I know all too well the balancing act and the feeling of not quite fitting the physical description of an “American” while also not feeling authentic enough to represent my parentsʻ differing cultures, even though I spoke fluent Spanish. In the movie Selena, her father described it best when he said, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It's exhausting!” Every child of immigrants can relate to this.
First generation Americans experience conflicts between the belief system of their parentʻs culture and those belief systems that are prevalent in the US. Growing up it can be quite frustrating to have parents that hold onto their cultural beliefs and insist that you carry on traditions and beliefs that may not align with the mainstream. Majority of children will rebel at some point and attempt to dissociate from their parentʻs customs in order to “fit in” more within their peer group, most especially when their peer group is White and subscribe to mainstream beliefs. Many immigrant children have been teased at school for speaking their parentʻs native language or even for bringing home lunch that looks and smells quite different from the food served at the cafeteria.
Here is where mental health fits into this picture. Studies after studies have shown that first generation youth born in the US have higher rates of mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression. They also have lower rates of participation in therapeutic modalities and attribute this to the stigma that mental health carries among large populations of immigrant families. Many immigrant parents struggle with the notion that their children have any challenges at all since they have sacrificed everything to come to a country that they believed would solve all their problems. Many children of immigrants are scolded for complaining about mental health challenges and are told that they are coming across as spoiled, entitled, and ungrateful. They are often reminded that their parents came from a situation that was far worse than anything they could imagine and these parents oftentimes struggle with the fact that their own children, born in the US, would have any issues at all. This conflict is referred to as the “immigrant paradox”.
The immigrant paradox has been defined by the Society for Research and Child Development (SRCD) as a phenomenon that explains why US-born youth are more likely to experience higher rates of mental health problems than youth who immigrated from a foreign country. Amy Marks, PhD, a professor of psychology and department chair at Suffolk University, who has written about the paradox for years, reports that immigrants and first-generation folks from immigrant families are acculturating into a society built on racist and oppressive systems that have existed for hundreds of years. “If you’re born into that system and you come from a non-European background with darker skin, that may have more pronounced effects on you,” Marks says, explaining how discrimination affects the mental health of many immigrant populations.
According to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the longer immigrants spend in the US, the higher their risk of psychiatric disorders become. This is partially due to the systemic discrimination, victimization, and rejection these families collectively face in this new country, plus family conflict that arises as a result of acculturation—the adjustment to new cultural and social norms. For immigrant populations, factors such as national origin, race, and how they arrived to this country impact the multidimensional outcome of oneʻs mental health as well.
I am a very proud daughter of two amazing immigrants that have done well for themselves and have gifted me with two amazing cultures. It has not always been easy to find a space where I felt that I was seen and acknowledged for who I truly was and not what others wanted me to be. Many first generation Americans learn quickly that the US experience for them is and can be very different from their parents and there is a movement among many of us to go back to seek the knowledge of our ancestral ways and culture as a means to reclaim a piece of ourselves that has been lost through the process of acculturation.