Male, Chinese and Immigrant

Depression while adjusting to a new country: Mental shame runs deep

Andrew Lee, MA

Reprinted from "Men" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), p. 20

stock photoDavid's Story

David is an immigrant in his 30s. He moved from Nanking in China to Vancouver with his wife and his three-year-old daughter two years ago. He arrived here with a dream that his family would enjoy a better lifestyle. He also believed he could find a decent job and create a promising career. He was convinced that he made a good decision and his effort was going to pay off. Immigrating to Canada was the future for him and his family.

David's dream, however, did not become a reality. First of all, he experienced hardship in job hunting: his graduate degree and previous working experience in the computer engineering field in China was not recognized by Canadian companies. Because he possessed professional competency, David felt this was unfair, and he was very upset with being denied opportunities.

After a long and futile search, David could only find a job as a seafood clerk in a Chinese supermarket. He regarded this job as far less satisfactory than the job he had as a mid-level manager in Nanking. In his opinion, a decent job would be a managerial job in an office. He felt frustrated and discouraged.

David's income was low and the financial situation of the family was not solid. Money issues triggered many conflicts between David and his wife. Although he did have some savings from his previous job and from investments, the couple could not see a better future. David's wife told him that he was "useless" because he could not bring home "sufficient" money.

David's self-esteem had dropped, and with the constant family conflict, his emotions took a downward spiral. He was disappointed with himself and felt guilty about making his family members' lives miserable. He withdrew from his family and his colleagues.

Eventually David lost interest in his hobbies (fishing and bowling), and he developed neck tension, headaches and sleep inconsistency. His appetite became low and he ate and drank very little; his weight dwindled. David's friends began to suspect that he may have developed depression. Even though his condition impaired how he functioned in his life, David refused all psychological or medical help suggested by his friends.

Although he knew that he should open himself up a bit and talk to someone about his problems, David felt too ashamed to do so-expressing problems to others is a strong taboo in the Chinese culture.

David is not alone

David's story is a made-up but highly plausible scenario. A male Chinese new immigrant develops a mental disorder, largely due to maladjustment to the life in Canada - although we believe physiological factors also play a causative role. It is fair to say that an individual develops his or her "expression of psychopathology" according to social and environmental impacts, as well as genetic factors together with individual lifestyle and unique psychological dynamics.

Mental health issues, however, have become a major concern in the immigrant Chinese community over the past few years. Because immigrants face tremendous cultural, social, financial and psychological challenges, the transition period to life in a new country is a vulnerable time.

Depression is not the only mental health problem occurring in male immigrants: anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, schizophrenia, bipolarity and chronic anger can be seen in this group as well. While there may be more Chinese females suffering depression than Chinese males, Chinese males may be more likely to express the same distress through anger. Chinese males, though, are less likely to reach out to community resources than are Chinese females, and they often quit psychological treatment prematurely.

Although there are numerous mental health issues in the Chinese community, there are some common patterns. For example, due to cultural factors, strong feelings of shame, guilt and denial are deeply rooted in Chinese males who have mental disorders. Receiving professional help is frequently regarded as a taboo, and those with mental illness are given outdated labels, such as being "crazy" or "insane."

It is important to explore how to actively enhance and encourage Chinese men like David to adapt to updated North American mental health concepts, which recognize that it is not abnormal to experience mental problems. This would help improve prevention and therapeutic efficiency in both medical and psychological domains.

About the author

Andrew is a psychotherapist with Change Now Psychotherapy and Counselling Services in Richmond, BC. He has a master's degree in counselling psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Andrew can be reached at 604-275-1316