Blog: Mental Health Struggles as a Newcomer to Canada: Finding a Sense of Belonging
Immigrants suffer from loneliness and shock when moving to a new country. It is important to know why this happens and understand some of their experiences firsthand.
By Alejandra Hasbun, Practicum Student
Adjusting to a new culture, environment, and language is not always easy for newcomers to Canada. Moving away from one’s home country can be as exciting as it is terrifying, and navigating an unfamiliar society takes time to adapt. Homesickness, culture shock, and language barriers are just some of the many things newcomers experience when immigrating to a different country and it is important to recognize that their mental health can be affected.
Homesickness can be described as the feeling of loneliness and/or anxiety when a person is far away from their home. As an immigrant, it is not unusual to feel homesick when moving to a completely different country by yourself. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can increase when being away from family and friends (WebMD, 2021). In my experience, when moving to Canada from El Salvador, this new country seemed exciting until I had to say goodbye to my family and felt fear of uncertainty about when I would see them again. Most immigrants move to Canada because they need to find a better quality of life that their home country could not provide them due to low employment opportunities, violence, or political conflicts (Statistics Canada, 2006). The choice of immigrating does not feel like a choice anymore, it feels like a necessity for a better life. When moving back home is not an option, it can make a person feel like they do not belong anywhere (Kitchen et. al., 2015). Accepting that Canada was my new home felt in some way as if I were betraying my country, I never appreciated my country so much until I had to leave it. This creates a conflict when trying to adapt to this new society because nothing measures up to the customs of the country that is left behind. The food now tastes wrong, the cars drive too fast or too slowly, and even the air tingles differently, everything feels out of order. Even if these things are an exaggeration of reality, they feel this way because of the unfamiliarity of this new society, this new place.
In my experience, homesickness would come in different ways: seeing pictures of my family members celebrating a birthday without me, missing my mom’s home cooking, experiencing an extreme change in weather, or having to spend Christmas without my parents. If a person immigrated by themselves, they are lacking physical closeness with their main support system, especially if they come from a collective culture. A collective culture refers to people who value working as a group rather than alone, the feeling of belongingness comes from being included in a collective (Nickerson, 2021). Changing from a collectivistic to an individualistic culture, like Canada’s, can be a substantial change because one must fend for themselves without being able to ask for help or feeling weak if help is asked (Evanson, 2016). Owais Memon, an Indian international student with Concordia University of Edmonton, responded when asked how he experienced homesickness, “I felt trapped. I missed my family, but I could not help myself because I could not see them until I went back, which would be a while.” (O. Memon, personal communication, November 21, 2022). Family helps cope with the stressors that come with moving to a new country. Not having anyone to reach out to when experiencing homesickness can make the feeling of loneliness worse and affect the person’s mental health negatively (Dumon, n.d.). In fact, homesickness has many depression-like symptoms and can develop into a formal diagnosis in the long run (WebMD, 2021).
Culture shock are feelings of disorientation and anxiety people feel when experiencing a new culture (Segal, 2022). How does culture shock relate to homesickness? When arriving in a new country, a lot of things can be different including language, customs, greetings, food, weather, etc. As a newcomer, experiencing all these things at once can be overwhelming. For the social aspect, some people might feel like they need to relearn how to socialize so they can integrate into their new society. Newcomers need to change their habits to fit into what is more socially acceptable in the new country. For example, coming from El Salvador, it is common to say hello by kissing people on the cheek, which is not the case in Canada. This simple act made such a difference for me, I felt distant from others, unable to feel familiar and warm. It is common to feel “strangeness” in the host country, it is hard navigating a completely different environment (Belford, 2017). Human beings are all trying to find a sense of belonging, which can be particularly hard to find as a newcomer to Canada if your culture differs from the Western culture. Immigrants try to find groups of people whom they relate to, feel belonging and acceptance. Thus, this is why there are so many centers or resources for immigrants in Canada to help with this issue like the Multicultural Family Resource Society. Finding groups that can give you a feel for home can be extremely helpful when dealing with culture shock and homesickness.
Language barriers can be distressing for immigrants. Some immigrants to Canada do not speak English as their first language. Language is integral to being understood and feeling belonging. Being unable to communicate can be extremely frustrating, it is like the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon but through most of the conversation. Jingyi He, a nursing student with the University of Alberta, came to Canada from China as a young girl, but she did not know how to speak English when she arrived. This was her experience:
“People were distancing themselves from me. When I was trying to make friends, I didn’t know what to say. I saw kids playing and I did not know how to express myself and they would ignore me, I felt abandoned…it created a lasting memory.” (J. He, personal communication, October 26, 2022).
Even if an immigrant’s second language is English, it can still be hard to communicate with others. The English that a person learns in their home country can utilize different words, slang, and could also be combined with their native language (Spanish + English = Spanglish). When a newcomer enters the host country and tries to communicate with the English they were taught and realize it is not the same, it may affect the way they hope to socialize and possibly be a deterrent (Pryce et.al., 2019). My struggle with language when moving came from not being able to communicate without throwing Spanish words into the conversation, which made it hard for others to understand if they did not know Spanish. People with a non-Canadian or non-native accent also struggle because sometimes locals believe that a different accent makes someone less intelligent and treat them as such (Ro, 2021). It takes time to get used to socializing in a new language and being able to convey humor and dialect using a new vocabulary. Speaking from experience and a lot of awkward silence, most jokes do not translate from one language to another. If a person is not able to relate with others, share some laughs, and have a common conversation topic it causes a disconnect between the person and their society, and this connection begins through language.
Feeling homesick is common as an immigrant, and yet it is not talked about enough. With the loneliness also comes a sense of guilt. Why would someone feel sad about living in a country with so many opportunities? It can feel as if one is being ungrateful for the chance of living in such a great country. However, that is not the case, it is okay to feel sad about missing family or friends, it is normal to miss one’s culture and norms, and it is natural to experience homesickness or culture shock. It is also okay to accept the new environment and genuinely enjoy a different culture. Being happy about moving and sad about leaving are not mutually exclusive feelings, it is normal to feel both. Allowing people to feel heard when experiencing everything that comes with immigrating is particularly important as a society as it helps people feel supported. Canada has organizations with support groups for newcomers which are amazing for finding relief. In Edmonton, these organizations include: Edmonton Immigrant Services Association, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, and Catholic Social Services.
Belford, N. (2017). International Students from Melbourne Describing Their Cross-Cultural Transitions Experiences: Culture Shock, Social Interaction, and Friendship Development. Journal of International Students. https://www.ojed.org/index.php/jis/index/
Dumon, W. A. (n.d.). NCBI – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12315897/
Evanson, N. (2016). Canadian Culture – Core Concepts. Cultural Atlas. https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/canadian-culture/canadian-culture-core-concepts
Kitchen, P. (2015, August 20). Sense of belonging to local community in small-to-medium sized Canadian urban areas: a comparison of immigrant and Canadian-born residents – BMC Psychology. BioMed Central. https://bmcpsychology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40359-015-0085-0
Multicultural Family Resource Society (n.d.). What We Do. https://mfrsedmonton.org/programs
Nickerson, C. (2021, July 21). Understanding Collectivist Cultures – Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/what-are-collectivistic-cultures.html
Pryce, J. M., Kelly, M. S., & Lawinger, M. (2019). Conversation Club: A Group Mentoring Model for Immigrant Youth. SagePub, 51. https://edmspc-my.sharepoint.com/:b:/g/personal/amandal_edmontonsocialplanning_ca/EWMhLSdjEMFKghV-erVD-BEBtixCo96wOBB8qDpI9wObIA?e=x1DWLA
Ro, C. (2021). The pervasive problem of “linguistic racism.” BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210528-the-pervasive-problem-of-linguistic-racism
Segal, T. (2022, July 25). Culture Shock Meaning, Stages, and How to Overcome. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/culture-shock.asp
Statistics Canada. (2006, October 30). Table 4 Reasons for staying in Canada cited by immigrants who plan to settle here permanently, by immigration category (Cited 4 years after arrival). https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-008-x/2007000/t/4097873-eng.htm
WebMD. (2021, March 30). What to Know About Homesickness and Mental Health. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-to-know-about-homesickness-and-mental-health