Brisbane Counsellor Corey Human knows first-hand how traumatic immigration can be …
On 1 January 2009 we arrived in Brisbane Australia from South Africa.
We were excited and sad about our new journey, at the same time. We loved South Africa, but realised that the country we love does not love us anymore, and we needed to make this change for the future of our two boys and to ensure we have a good and peaceful life.
Getting to Australia was just one part of the immigration process; the moving and saying goodbye was traumatic, but the process of integration and settling in was equally so.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes trauma as the results of an event or events that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or even life-threatening, that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual wellbeing.
Taking this into consideration, we can say from experience that immigration is a traumatic process. Immigration can be described as a loss of identity, as well as the loss of all that is familiar to you. Many people who are new to a country do not have the ability to cope and adapt to their new environment. Although this transition process generally has a positive outcome, it is possible that the immigrant will have emotional scars (1).
The Immigration Process
There are four identified stages in the immigration process that can cause trauma:
- The events that a person experienced prior to immigration – the reason why the person or persons decided to leave their country or birth. This is called pre-migration trauma (3). Many South African immigrants’ trauma falls under this category.
- The second stage that causes immigration trauma is when the person experiences traumatic events during immigration. This trauma is described as trauma during transit (3). People who are asylum seekers and illegal immigrants often suffer from trauma during transit.
- Asylum seekers and other immigrants may experience trauma as host countries are not always welcoming. This form of trauma is called continued traumagenic experiences.
- Further trauma can be caused due to sub-standard living conditions in the host country. The reasons for this may include unemployment, lack of adequate support and minority persecution. This form of trauma is known as post-migration stress or trauma (3).
Added to immigration trauma is also the issue of culture shock.
What is Culture Shock?
Culture shock can be described as a natural state of disorientation, psychological and physical, that a person can experience when entering a different environment or culture. The loss of social support networks, and loss of independence, can both contribute to culture shock, which may manifest as:
- Loss of self-confidence;
- Grief – mourning of the life left behind;
- Feeling isolated;
- Over sensitivity;
- Impatience with self and people close to you (4).
Struggling with Immigration Trauma?
Trauma counselling can help with the feelings and emotions experienced during and after immigration, by:
- Allowing you to identify and understand your own personal coping strategies;
- Validating your emotions and feelings;
- Empowering you to stop suppressing these feelings;
- Enabling you to face the issues, instead of avoiding them as a form of defence;
- Motivating you to start living in the present, and not to be returned to past traumatic experiences due to various triggers.
Trauma treatment addresses your increased state of hyper arousal and fear. If the treatment is successful, your sense of physical safety will be restored. Some of the approaches which are effective in treatment include:
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP): This method directly treats the effects of trauma on the body. It is a very gentle form of therapy, and is very effective when used with survivors of childhood trauma.
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): A combination of CBT and eye movements.
- Brainspotting: This technique allows you to identify, process, and release core neuro-psychological sources of emotional pain, body pain, trauma, dissociation and other challenging symptoms. Brainspotting is a method that helps to diagnose issues caused by trauma, at the same time as treating them (5).
Sometimes trauma can be very overwhelming, and the sufferer feels stuck or trapped by constantly feeling in danger, and painful memories that do not go away. If this is the case, the person might be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (5), and it is possible that the stress and trauma of migration may lead to many experiencing PTSD .
For PTSD treatment, counsellors make use of various forms of CBT and narrative therapies, which have been proven to be most effective.
Children who suffer from trauma can be helped by Parenting and Family Interventions (PFI). In PFI, the parents with the guidance of the counsellor can be effective resources to help intervene in the trauma the child experienced during immigration (2).
Immigration is not for sissies! If you or any person in your family is struggling with any form of immigration trauma, remember there is help available. My family and I have experienced immigration trauma, pre-immigration trauma and culture shock, and in hindsight if we had connected with a counsellor soon after we arrived in Australia, our integration process would have been easier and a lot less traumatic.
Author: Corey Human, B Th, M Counselling.
Corey Human has nearly 20 years’ experience in providing counselling to adolescents, adults, couples, parents and families in both English and Afrikaans. In relationship counselling and education, his aim is to empower each couple with the tools to help themselves when they get to points of conflict in their relationship.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Abbrasi, F. (2015). Imigration, Trauma and the power of faith. [online] Care for the Mind. Available at: http://careforyourmind.familyaware.org/immigration-trauma-and-the-power-of-faith/ [Accessed 21 Jun. 2018].
- Ballard, J., Wieling, E. and Solheim, C. (n.d.). 5.3 Mental Health Treatments | Immigrant and Refugee Families. [online] Open.lib.umn.edu. Available at: http://open.lib.umn.edu/immigrantfamilies/chapter/5-3-mental-health-treatments/ [Accessed 24 Jun. 2018].
- Foster, R. (2001). When immigration is trauma: Guidelines for the individual and family clinician. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, [online] 71(2), pp.153-170. Available at: http://www.sjsu.edu/people/edward.cohen/courses/c3/s1/immigration_trauma.pdf.
- Limited, C. (2018). What is Culture Shock?. [online] Communicaid.com. Available at: https://www.communicaid.com/cross-cultural-training/blog/what-is-culture-shock/ [Accessed 24 Jun. 2018].
- com.au. (n.d.). Support Matters Trauma Counselling. [online] Available at: http://supportmatters.com.au/trauma-counselling/ [Accessed 24 Jun. 2018].