Mental health and the first generation experience

From a first generation perspective, wellbeing and mental health is often overlooked as a priority. In my own experiences, these things did not hold significance until more recently, where I and those closest to me, began to recognise the importance of becoming more aware and working towards improving our wellbeing. Through deeper discussions and reflections, we are able to look at the areas in our lives that may affect the state of our health, which then gives us the opportunity to find resolutions or seek further knowledge and assistance.

As first generation African Australians, there are multiple factors that may impact our mental health. This includes experiences of racial discrimination and racial microaggressions that are commonly encountered in, but not limited to, the workplace or school environment. Such experiences can lead to feelings of low confidence and lack of self esteem. For many children of immigrants, these experiences may be difficult to share with parents, as many of the older generation hold fears towards speaking up against such issues, as they believe it can lead to further escalations for their children, such as getting fired from a job or expelled from a school. For many of our parents, survival is the mentality and has been for so long due to previous struggles they have shared, explaining why “laying low” and not making a fuss is preferred to challenging others, especially authority figures. This can, however, be harmful for youth as they may begin to share the same mentality and suppress any feelings they may have felt from negative experiences. 

Our sense of belonging also plays a significant role in our mental health, identity and social cohesion. As mentioned in previous posts, first generation Australians are often finding themselves negotiating between two conflicting cultures. Many of us can find ourselves being pulled in multiple directions, which can lead to greater feelings of confusion and stress. We may feel isolated from both cultural groups (African and Australian) because we are unable to meet the expectations or follow the values from two different cultures, at the same time. This can lead to a lack of sense of belonging for many of us, resulting in identity issues, losing a sense of safety and social connectedness.

Feelings of exclusion are also heightened when we are exposed to the wider public’s attitude towards African Australians, particularly through the media. African Australian youth are often demonised by the mainstream media, especially in instances where race and crime are inherently linked in news reports and articles. This has led to a ‘gang violence’ narrative surrounding African Australian communities and sends messages of fear to other members of the public. Not only does this isolate us further, but it also reinforces negative stereotypes. This causes detrimental consequences for our wellbeing. I think it is also worth noting, that those few that are participating in crimes, may be struggling with mental health issues and do not have the support or treatment they require to deal with such challenges. Secondly, these portrayals are unjust because there are so many of us contributing to our communities in such a positive way, yet this continues to be overlooked.

It is also important to look at the pressures we may face from those closest to us such as our parents, extended family members, friends and members of our community. The majority of our parents hold perspectives that may contrast with that of our own, as we were raised in different places in a completely different time. For example, growing up in an immigrant household, education is highly regarded and prioritised . It is drilled into us from a young age that obtaining a tertiary qualification is the only avenue to success. This places immense pressure on youth, especially those who do not want to attend university and see themselves excelling in another field, such as sports, art, music, fashion or a particular trade. Not fulfilling such expectations, can lead to feelings of shame and lack of self worth. It can also lead to many of us, falling into careers and education pathways that we are not passionate about, to prevent our families from being disappointed. It is not our parents’ intentions to cause us harm, but by having more open and honest dialogues within our homes, it at least gives our parents the opportunity to make small changes that could be beneficial for us in the long run.

Mental health is a complex topic, and we should continue bringing attention to it within our households, friendship circles and wider community. The more we are able to open up about the fears, concerns and pressures we experience, the more we are able to lean on each other for support. While resolutions in this area may involve collaborative efforts with other parties such as the government, local councils and not for profit organisations, I do believe the real work starts with us.