Migrants: The Psychological Impact of Immigration

It is definitely not easy moving to a new country. Many people do it, and many countries have been built on the back of migrants, but that doesn’t mean that changing countries is a walk in the park. The stress of the move and adjustment to the new country, as well as the loss of so much from the old, can lead to anxiety and depression and other psychological problems amongst migrants .

The Big Move

One of the first stressful steps in the experience is packing and selling up. Deciding what to take, send, sell, give away, or throw out can be a slow and painful task. Shipping is expensive, so many people choose to leave things behind and repurchase in the new country. However, budgets can restrict purchases at the other end, meaning that new migrants often have far fewer  possessions than they had at home. And leaving beloved items behind can be a sad experience for adults and children alike.


Often the hardest thing for new migrants to cope with is the loss of family and friends. This can cause an empty longing that is hard to relieve and that can lead to depression.  In families, it is often those who were the least enthusiastic about the move that feel the most pain, and the sense of powerless over their life can exacerbate their grief.  Telephone and internet calls can lessen the pain, but they cannot replicate the touch and smell of loved ones.

Sharing Space

Those migrants who are lucky enough to have family or friends in the new country often move in with them until they can arrange their own accommodation. It can be difficult to rent a property without a job, credit rating, and a local rental reference, and new immigrants from poorer countries often cannot afford rent, bonds, and furnishing;, so cramming the family into a relative’s spare bedroom, or sleeping everyone on the floor or sofa in the living room, is a common practice. Although living with experienced settlers in many ways helps migrants adjust to a new country, sharing small spaces, living out of suitcases, and feeling as if they are imposing on others, can add to stress and affect self esteem.


Language barriers frequently add to the difficulties of new migrants. Even those people who have spoken English as a first language, can often struggle to have their accent understood, and vice versa. Language problems can create obstacles to social and professional integration, increase stress, and reduce self esteem, creating more social isolation.


Cultural differences can have a huge impact on immigrants. They might feel that they stand out uncomfortably because of the way they dress, or be horrified by the way their children want to dress. Immigrants might not have easy access to an appropriate place of worship. They might have to go to work during important holy days and festivals. They might find that the things they did in their homeland, such as circumcising children, growing tobacco or cannabis, slaughtering a sheep in the garden, drinking alcohol, or having more than one wife, are taboo or illegal in the new country, and this creates confusion and mental stress.


The loss of familiar foods can be difficult for many immigrants, particularly those who have had little experience with foods from other cultures.  Luckily, many supermarkets and speciality shops increasingly have foodstuff from other countries, although at inflated prices. Even so, immigrants typically miss the local markets and fresh produce of their homeland.


One of the most difficult aspects of immigration is finding work. Qualifications are too often not transferable, so people with high level qualifications and years of experience at management and professional levels, can find themselves being forced to clean toilets or drive taxis to feed their families.  Heartbreaking stuff.


Along with the loss of prestige can come a loss of income in real terms. When people are deciding to immigrate to country with a high GDP, they are often swayed by rumours of the salaries of even the lowest paid workers. But people sometimes fail to realise that the cost of living could be disproportionately high, so they might find themselves struggling to feed, clothe and house their families.

Recycling and Things

New countries take a lot of getting used to. Everyday things that we need to know, such as mobile phone contracts, road rules, tax laws, electricity connections, bank accounts, public transport routes, and rubbish recycling procedures, can baffle even long term locals. These things are especially challenging for newcomers, particularly when language barriers are added.




Older people tend to find it harder to learn a new language and are generally less flexible in their ways than their younger counterparts. If an elderly immigrant has retired, or is not able or willing to get a job, they will tend to stay more isolated and interact less with the local population. Non-working mothers can have the same difficulties.



Children pick up the lifestyles and languages of their peers relatively quickly, but for them it can feel like living between two worlds: worlds with different languages, cultures and values. With their superior language skills, children are often called on to be interpreters for their elders in all sorts of situations, which can confuse roles and add to stress. Having to tell a doctor the details of a parent’s health concern is not easy for a young person.


Some refugees from war torn countries have been traumatised by such things as violence, injury, torture, or the loss of loved ones.  This increases the chance of them having a mental health problem.


Psychological Impact

All of this can take its toll on new immigrants and their families, creating symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, or other mental health issues. If one family member develops psychological problems, their problems can impact the whole family. Children are particularly vulnerable in this regard.


In many cultures there is a great deal of stigma attached to mental health problems. In some it mixes with spiritual beliefs and believed to be a sign of evil in the sufferer. Mental Health professionals are uncommon in many cultures, so immigrants from those communities are unlikely to seek help.


How Can Migrants Reduce the Risk of Mental Health Problems?

Here are a few ideas for helping yourself or a loved one reduce risk factors:

  • Learn the language as quickly as possible and, scary as it might seem, get out and practise it with the locals.
  • Immerse yourself in the new culture: walk about, explore, go to free events, join clubs and activities, do courses, have fun outside with the children, and make new friends through them.
  • Exercise: it’s good for the body, mind and stress levels.
  • Try to relax and enjoy each moment doing simple things.
  • Try not to focus on what you miss; rather think about the new things you are able to experience. No place has all the benefits of another; but each country is unique and amazing.
  • Upgrade your qualifications or get a new qualification. Ask for feedback from unsuccessful job applications, and get help with your resume and applications.
  • Access professional help. Many governments offer counselling and interpreter services to help immigrants, and psychologists are often available through the health service. The first port of call might be the immigration service, the council, a hospital, or a doctor.
  • Remember you do not have to be crazy to access mental health services. More and more ordinary people from all cultures are benefiting from confidential psychology and counselling services, realising that quality treatment and support can add greatly to their psychological well-being and quality of life, as well as that of their families.




Images courtesy of graur razvan ionut and nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net







  1. Hi. I’m a writer/psychologist working on my 2nd book re Immigration/Relationships and would like to connect . Ta Eve
    PS Not sure if my previous message got through on this website ?

  2. Hi. I am busy writing my 2nd book re Impact of Immigration on the Family Unit. Would like to quote you please. Regards Eve- psychologist/writer.

  3. Hi Jas… just noticed your msg. Thanks for the thanks. Glad my article on immigration helped you a little. Hope you are gradually settling better… Warm wishes… Lorri

  4. Thank you for that refreshing advice Lorri; I am 54 and after 4 years am constantly seeking to reflect on why I am lonely: your encouragement makes a worthy thoughts for reflection.

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