By Meagan Beckmeyer
In the aftermath of an anxiety-inducing election that we hopefully will never see the likes of again, a progressive platitude resurfaced: practice self-care. While many mainstream publications attributed yet another seemingly trivial, fleeting trend to avocado toast-noshing millennials, this concept wasn’t new in 2016. Nor trivial. Interestingly enough, it’s a medical concept that appeared in our vernacular during the 1960’s and 70’s with the rise of social justice movements. Yet, in light of its origins and importance to the fight for social justice, why is self-care often ignored when discussing immigration? And why do we treat it like a commodity for the privileged rather than as a human need?
Since I was a particularly anxious child, my mother always touted the importance of stress-relieving oils, exercise, and breathing. Self-care is now more evolved and commoditized than that. No longer encompassing simple things like exercise, meditation and breathing techniques, it has expanded to include therapy, medication, yoga, massages – the list goes on. Fundamentally, these are things that make us feel good and make it easier to conquer whatever lies ahead. They make us feel connected, remind us we are human, and make it okay for us to address our own needs. However, these methods of self-care come at a high cost that are not equally accessible without time and money.
So, why did the importance of self-care come back into the mainstream spotlight in the aftermath of the election? Fear.
Fear is potent and can be an impetus for action or for withdrawal. In the immigrant community, it can disproportionately lead to withdrawal. Immigration under the current administration has seen aggressive ICE raids, unjust deportations, renewed fear amongst undocumented immigrants who were previously considered low-priority for deportation for non-criminal offenses, and now for DACA recipients. The fear in the immigrant community has increased; however, this isn’t entirely new. The Obama administration oversaw record deportation numbers, resulting in 2.7 million deportations between 2009-2016. This is the highest number of deportations under a single president (so far). While DACA was an immigration win, it didn’t eradicate the fear that came with record deportation numbers and continuing uncertainty with every blocked Executive Order or Supreme Court loss. And there was little talk of self-care. Then Americans elected an anti-immigrant president, and self-care plasters headlines of homogenous, white publications.
Four years ago, I watched a loved one struggle with understanding of and accessibility to self-care as he faced deportation. The fear and anxiety took a toll on him physically, mentally, and emotionally, and it worsened with every delayed hearing and anticipated policy change. He became a different person as he struggled with depression for the first time in his life. I tried to help him but felt powerless. The resources available to me through health insurance were not accessible to him or came at a high expense on top of his astronomical attorney fees and the cost of time away from work. I helped him search for alternatives, from homeopathic remedies to massage gadgets, and took care of him the best I could. Neither of us understood the impact that his immigration status could have on his mental health, and self-care resources weren’t as accessible – or acceptable – as they are now.
Until recently, there has been little understanding of the impact immigration has on mental health; only in the past few months have studies shown the effects of immigration on mental health. Mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD, can make it increasingly difficult to care for one’s own basic needs and maintain livelihood. And immigrants aren’t exempt from this. With increasing threats to immigration policy, organizations like Here to Stay now offer mental health toolkits and other resources specifically for undocumented immigrants and Dreamers. But is this enough? Self-care methods addressing mental health typically comprise counseling and medication, yet these are often inaccessible or come at a high premium for undocumented immigrants, meanwhile awareness of affordable alternative methods, like meditation, is low. And it’s during these times of uncertainty that immigrants need self-care tools and resources the most.
Immigrants – regardless of legal status – are human beings with the same basic needs and desires as everyone else. To be safe. To be secure. To be loved. To be happy. They are also important contributors to our society, economy, and legacy. Now more than ever, many live in fear of being deported, of seeing loved ones deported, and of their families being separated. As mental health services are scant and expensive, we need to create safe spaces for immigrants to access self-care services, as well as understand the cultural stigmas that can come along with mental health and self-care. This may be as simple as allowing someone to talk safely about their experience through a support group or one-on-one or connecting them with low-cost services and organizations. Self-care is personal yet it is also about community and should be accessible regardless of privilege or immigration status.