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August 15.2023
3 Minutes Read

Mental Health and First Generation Americans  

First Generation Americans, or First Gens (who I’ll define here as those born or raised in the US with at least one immigrant parent or primary caregiver) have mental health experiences unique to our community. As a First Gen perusing mainstream mental health discourse, you may not necessarily find your concerns being addressed or reflected, leaving you feeling at a loss or misunderstood.

In this post I’ll outline some common mental health struggles First Gens may face. Read on to see if some of them may resonate with you.

Identity conflict 

First Gens may feel torn between two cultures — the culture of their parents and the dominant US culture. This can be even more confusing in situations where parents encourage you to assimilate in some ways by pursuing American markers of success, but also expect you to adhere to traditional cultural norms around relationships and family. Many First Gens feel some amount of ambivalence toward both their inherited culture and adopted culture, which can leave us feeling confused, isolated, and depressed. We are also at risk of internalizing shame and racist ideas about ourselves and our families because of this conflict, as well as the interpersonal and institutional racism we experience in the United States.

Role reversal with parents

Some First Gens grow up with parents who do not speak English fluently or received a limited education before immigrating to the United States. This may cause them to put their children in situations usually reserved for adults, like translating for them at the doctor’s office or reading through and managing important bank documents. You might find that your relationship with your parents is impacted by this — for example by feeling resentful of taking on a lot of responsibility at a young age or feeling anxious and overwhelmed about needing to take care of them. 

Financial stress

Many people who immigrate to the United States do so with limited generational wealth, and their earning potential may be impacted by racism, xenophobia, and/or immigration status. As a result, many First Gens grow up with financial insecurity, which in and of itself is a major detrimental factor when it comes to mental health. Financial insecurity may also limit your opportunities to pursue dreams like higher education, specialized careers, or travel, leading to a sense of unfulfillment. For those who are able to achieve financial stability in adulthood, the mindset of past financial stress can be hard to shake, causing you to live life feeling on edge even when you are in a position to take care of your needs and wants.

Intergenerational trauma

Some First Gens come from families who came to the US as asylees, refugees, or otherwise escapees from traumatic situations in their home country, such as war, violence, or natural disasters. Unfortunately, many do not receive appropriate mental health treatment on arrival due to lack of financial resources and/or cultural stigma. Then, the trauma is compounded by the stresses of starting a new life in an at best foreign and at worst hostile country. 

Unaddressed trauma can profoundly affect a person’s capacity and performance as a parent. You may have grown up with a parent who was mentally and emotionally absent and stuck in the past, or who was constantly at work not only to make money but to avoid dealing with their feelings, or who kept your apartment so stuffed full of things from the old country that you could barely walk around, or who took out all their rage and frustration at life on you through explosive outbursts and even physical violence. As an adolescent or young adult, you might find yourself trying to cope with these experiences through substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, or other self-harming behavior.

You deserve to get the right help

If you are a First Gen struggling with your mental health, there are resources available to help you.t Salt River Therapy, our therapists are well-versed with First Gen experiences and ready to address your specific concerns. Ready to learn more? Just click the button below to schedule a phone consultation with one of our therapists.


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