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Column: 'A Migrant State of Mind’ – emigration and mental health

I emigrated from my native Sri Lanka to Ireland in a bid to find acceptance – but unfortunately the journey of a migrant does not end when they arrive on the shores of their new home, writes Dil Wickremasinghe.

Dil Wickremasinghe

MIGRANTS COME TO Ireland looking for a better life. Some come looking for acceptance, freedom, safety or economic security. Some find what they are looking for and for others it’s a work in progress. But regardless of how smooth their transition is, all migrants share a sense of dislocation, and many are profoundly impacted by their experience.

People have been immigrating for centuries; and although the method of transport has got easier, stricter immigration control has made relocation far more difficult. The journey of a migrant does not end when they arrive on the shores of their new home. Those who do succeed in immigrating often face a challenging settlement process which involves poverty, loss of social status, isolation, insecurity of immigration status, discrimination and racism.

As a migrant who came to Ireland just over 13 years ago I am very familiar with how challenging settling into a new country can be. My reason for emigrating from Sri Lanka was to find acceptance, I was desperate to find a place where I could be myself. I experienced huge adversity on account of my sexuality including being kicked out of the family home at the age of 17 and then being told by my employers in radio that I had to hide my “inclinations”. I felt ashamed and inadequate so I decided to leave Sri Lanka and all my problems behind thinking that would solve everything… if only it was that easy!

Ireland was more accepting and yet it was not enough

My first week in Ireland couldn’t have been more perfect as by pure coincidence it was Gay Pride week! I felt so free and for the first time in my life I felt I had come home. If my life was a movie this is where the credits would roll – but alas my journey was only just beginning.

Although I spoke fluent English and had no problem finding work I felt anxious about navigating the Irish immigration system. Adjusting to the Irish accent, new terminology, sense of humour and culture came naturally to me and although making new friends was easy I found it hard to maintain friendships. I still felt I didn’t “fit in”, I felt awkward and alone and before I knew it the same feelings I struggled with back in Sri Lanka started leaking through. After being in Ireland for six years my life started unravelling as I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.

I tried to reach out for help and after going through 10 therapists I finally found the services of One in Four who were not only inclusive and affordable but understood the challenges faced by migrants. I slowly started feeling better but realised in the thick of my therapy that I was still searching for validation and acceptance from family and society. I realised the healing process would only begin if I started looking for acceptance within me instead of constantly looking for it from the world around me.

It’s in this place of reflection that I began to wonder whether other migrants struggled with their mental health too and, if so, what did they do about it?

During my research into the area I found that every migrant I spoke to had experienced various levels of depression, anxiety and stress during their relocation process. I was alarmed to hear that the majority of the migrants who struggled didn’t get any help due to lack of awareness of what mental health was. They didn’t know where to go, couldn’t afford it or simply were too afraid to ask for help because of stigma.

‘A Migrant State of Mind’

After hundreds of conversations with other migrants I was moved to make this the topic of my first radio documentary. ‘A Migrant State of Mind’ explores how the process of immigration impacts on a migrant’s mental health, by bringing you the stories of five inspirational individuals, in their own words.

In ‘A Migrant State of Mind’ we meet 24-year-old Susan from Kenya who became a victim of forced labour. She says: “After three months, I got to call home but it was from a telephone booth, I would put coins in… I would say hello and just felt like crying as I got very emotional but I didn’t want to show it so I kept it to myself.”

Jayson, an undocumented worker from the Philippines, says: “I’ve mixed emotions, I am happy because I have the opportunity to give my children a good future but on the other side there’s sadness because I left my three children and I don’t know if I am going to see them again – life is too short.”

Emmanuel, who was granted refugee status, recalls his experience of living in direct provision:  “I cannot remember a day where there wasn’t a fight. There was a guy from Iraq, he was in a fight every day. He was a doctor in his own country, he comes to Ireland and becomes an asylum seeker and after two years he is having a fight with a 22 year-old-boy over the TV remote… that is what happens in these places.”

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Then we meet Bepasha, an economic migrant who experienced domestic violence but bravely shares her story as she says: “Sometimes I used to just close my eyes and I would see myself in a dark tunnel where there was no way out… I didn’t want to wake up in the morning.”

I also share my own story of how even though I have found acceptance and success in Ireland my mental health is still fragile.

Migrants come looking for a better life but how does it feel to turn away from the familiar and bravely step into the unknown and how does the transition impact on their mental health?

‘A Migrant State of Mind’ airs on Newstalk 106-108 radio on Saturday the 12th of October at 7am and repeated on Sunday the 13th of October at 6pm.
‘A Migrant State of Mind’ radio documentary is supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.

The documentary – recorded and presented by Dil Wickremasinghe, produced and edited by Francesca Lalor and mixed by John Davis – can also be listened to online at after it is broadcasted.

About the author:

Dil Wickremasinghe

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