Towards an open-minded view of migration and mental health

The World Mental Health Day, 10 October, is an opportunity to reflect on the connections between mental health and migration. But there’s a risk of simply sharing stereotypical portrayals of ‘the mental health of migrants’.

Researchers in different disciplines have examined a wide range of possible connections between migration and mental health. So let’s use the opportunity of the World Mental Health Day to appreciate those findings.

‘Mental health’ is something we all have. As with physical health, it is worth examining variation in general fitness (for instance conceived of as happiness) as well as the incidence of serious and potentially debilitating illness (such as major depressive disorder).

As with many other phenomena that intersect with migration, mental health status can be both a cause and a consequence of migration. And, as always, it is best to avoid the idea that ‘migration is about migrants’. It partly is, of course, but migration affects non-migrants as well as migrants and can shape societies and institutions beyond the individuals who move or stay.

Here are selected findings from six studies that shed light on multiple links between migration and mental health:

The effects of trauma are shaped by life at the destination

Among refugees and other displaced migrants, traumatic experiences prior to migration contribute to poor mental health outcomes. But this effect is powerfully shaped by positive and negative aspects of daily life after migration. Hou et al. (2020) reached this conclusion from a meta-analysis of 59 published studies.

Migration also affects the mental health of non-migrants

Stay-behind mothers with husbands working overseas are more likely to experience poor mental health, compared to mothers in non-migrant households. Graham et al. (2015) found this to be the case in a study of migration and child health in Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. In separate analyses the authors also found negative effects on the mental health of children.

Global inequalities affect mental health outcomes for migrants

Migrants who were exposed to armed conflict before migrating are at high risk of mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder. However, such adverse outcomes are less likely for those who migrate to high-income countries. Mesa-Vieira et al. (2022) estimated this in a meta-analysis of 34 published studies.

Migration can improve mental health outcomes

Measuring the effects of migration is tricky because migrants may be different from non-migrants in the first place. In a rare case of randomly assigned migration opportunities, migration was found to improve mental health, especially for women and those with poor mental health. Stillman et al. (2009) used the New Zealand visa lottery for Tongans as a natural experiment to find this effect.

Migrants become happier, but not as happy as natives

Migration is often seen as a step towards a better life, in one way or another. And people do generally become happier by migrating, though it strongly depends on the specific migration stream. Overall, migrants typically do not reach similar levels of happiness to those of natives in the destination country. These were the main conclusions of Hendricks (2015) in a meta-analysis of 44 studies.

Mental health challenges can drive migration

Stigmatisation and stressors associated with minority status can lead to adverse mental health outcomes. This can inspire migration to more inclusive social environments elsewhere. The result might be that mental health challenges are transformed rather than eliminated. This is what Lewis (2014) found in a study among gay-identified men in North America, who had moved to large, liberal cities.

Some of the research findings have implications for policy. More generally we can all make a difference by approaching mental health in our surroundings with an open mind.

Thanks to Jayce Eduarte for the photo.