Immigrants: The Importance of Culture
I didn’t fully understand culture until I lived outside of mine. Living in a small, isolated town in the Sahel desert of northern Burkina Faso, I spent 2 years teaching at a public high school, collaborating with community members, and immersing myself in the culture. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and this experience revealed the depth and power of culture in a way I had never seen before. While learning about the Burkinabe culture, I realized how much my own worldview was rooted in my culture. Things like goals and dreams, family treatment of children, educational perspective, and even common sense are all culturally bound.
After returning 12 years ago from Burkina Faso, I have had the opportunity to know and work with many immigrants to the U.S. I enjoy learning about other people’s cultures and upbringings, hearing about their beliefs and traditions, and experiencing new celebrations and holidays. I understand how engrained cultural values often are, and how much of an influence they can have on our perspectives and life decisions. “Tolerance” and “acceptance” are words that are often used when discussing differences. I think they both fall short of the mark. It’s important to not only tolerate, but to respect and appreciate these cultural differences, understanding their influence.
Immigrants to the U.S. face issues that are common to all people, such as communication struggles, financial difficulties, or career issues. But immigrants also face issues unique to the melding of their home cultures with their new cultures. Some immigrants struggle with understanding norms or expectations. Many immigrants wonder how much of their home culture they are willing to leave behind and what traditions they will make an effort to keep. Often there are conflicts between 1st and 2nd generation immigrants (parents and children) as they deal differently with cultural assimilation.
Many immigrants find strength in maintaining contact with people from their home country or in building a support system of other immigrants in the U.S. Talking with other people dealing with the same struggles can be validating and reassuring. How can mental health services help? Working with a counselor can help to expand a strong support system, to identify stressors, and to work towards health.
Other resources about culture and immigration:
From the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), New Insights on how Mental Health is Influenced by Culture and Immigration Status
From the APA (American Psychological Association), Immigration
Publication, International Journal of Culture and Mental Health