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"Immigrants themselves sometimes don't realize they're in a crisis, and their surroundings don't understand it either": The interview with psychotherapist Olga Movchan.

Every immigrant's story is unique, yet it shares similarities with other such narratives. Virtually everyone changing their country of residence inevitably faces losses: a decrease in professional status, the rupture of family ties, and loneliness. How is forced emigration more perilous than planned relocation? What psychological problems do immigrants most commonly encounter? What are the signs of immigrant depression? What psychological complexities often arise in mixed marriages? How can one preserve their identity and connection with their parents? Olga Movchan, a psychotherapist and expert in Gestalt therapy, discussed immigrant crises and overcoming them in an interview with "Kommerstant UK."

  • Today, immigration has become the norm. People move to various countries for all sorts of reasons. In your opinion, what are the psychological consequences of forced emigration compared to planned relocation?

First and foremost, with forced emigration, the level of stress is significantly higher, there's more uncertainty, and a diminished sense of security. If someone moves due to work or planned relocation (with family, for marriage) with a container of belongings to a pre-rented apartment, they feel they're in control of the situation, understanding both the reasons and the timeline for the move. With forced emigration, they have little control, decisions are tactical, and serious compromises are inevitable—this causes more anxiety and tension.

Forced emigration is always a consequence of external choices, which can feel like coercion. In this case, adaptation accompanying the immigration process will be more challenging. People who are forced to change their country of residence have a different sense of the future, and they often refer not to immigration but to relocation, emphasizing the temporariness of the process (move, then return). Psychologically, "relocation" is perceived more easily because the word "immigration" sounds more dramatic for Russian-speaking people and is associated with previous waves, which were perceived more tragically, so objective problems are compounded by transgenerational memory, making it even more challenging to cope with.

  • So, based on your experience, what are the common challenges people face when they immigrate?

Well, firstly, immigrants often find their rights significantly infringed compared to locals. Locals have it easy, living in the country by virtue of birth, whereas immigrants have to navigate visas, work permits, and all sorts of documentation to prove their right to be there. They had it all sorted back home, so moving can feel like a loss, sparking feelings of injustice and uncertainty that can be quite distressing, fitting into the broader picture of the immigrant experience.

Secondly, there's the identity crisis almost every immigrant encounters sooner or later. It's not just a shift in identity; it's often a complete loss of it. Consider a successful doctor, heading a department in a major clinic back home, suddenly finding themselves in the shoes of a student, having to prove their skills all over again. They're not seen in the same light, and they start questioning their own sense of self. Language barriers also play a part, making it challenging not just to communicate but also to grasp cultural norms and local customs, especially at the beginning. From being a witty conversationalist, they can become a hesitant observer, missing out on jokes and struggling to engage in discussions. It can be quite agonizing. In such cases, identity is in serious crisis, requiring a rebuilding process or the discovery of new avenues for self-expression.

Thirdly, immigrants are faced with a myriad of new details to navigate in various aspects of life—where to buy bread, how to dispose of rubbish, even how to respond to emails. It's mentally taxing. The early stages of immigration can really overwhelm the mind. People feel lost, which diminishes their self-worth. They wonder, "Why haven't I accomplished anything yet? Why am I so exhausted?" Often, people in this period feel like they have autism spectrum disorder, where everyday stimuli feel overwhelming. For instance, an immigrant may be fluent in the language and adept at communicating with colleagues in a professional setting, but struggle to focus and participate in bar conversations due to the noise and distractions. They end up feeling both overwhelmed and isolated. They crave social connections but lack the energy to initiate new relationships. Quite the opposite, they feel like meeting with loved ones to unwind but they remain back home. It's like being trapped in a cycle that leaves immigrants more vulnerable to stress.

  • There are national communities, diasporas, where people can socialize, right?

Indeed, these communities play a crucial role in supporting immigrants, but socializing within them can be a double-edged sword. People can feel desperate because they struggle to assimilate and end up retreating into these national communities.

  • Which psychological types find immigration easier, and which find it more challenging?

Different psychological types have their own compensatory strengths and weaknesses, so I wouldn't say that any one type copes better with the immigration process than others. Everyone faces difficulties and finds their own ways to adapt. For example, introverts might cope better with loneliness, although they'll find it much harder to make new connections. On the other hand, those inclined towards extroversion may struggle intensely with isolation though can establish relationships more quickly, adapt to new conditions and find self-expression easier. On one hand, individuals with narcissistic tendencies may find the crisis of identity and decrease in self-esteem more agonizing and challenging due to the loss of status and position, which often leads to feelings of shame (one of the most prominent experiences of immigrants). On the other hand, their ability to concentrate and focus on achievements may help them adapt through professional growth.

  • What are the signs of depression in immigrants?

Immigrants often exhibit classic symptoms, which are part of what's known as the depressive triad: mood disturbances (unexplained sadness, feelings of melancholy, apathy), loss of ability to act and asthenia (increased fatigue, exhaustion, weakening or loss of ability to sustain prolonged physical and mental effort), and overall sluggishness of intellectual processes (deterioration of memory, weakened attention). In children and adolescents, depression often manifests as asthenia and feelings of helplessness: "I've done everything, but I don't understand how to get a good grade on this essay in this school; I'm tired, and I won't do anything anymore." The initial manifestations of immigrant depression may include asthenia and somatic symptoms, including insomnia. While this may not yet be depression, ignoring these symptoms could lead to the development of a more profound depressive process.

  • What psychological issues are most common in marriages between Russian speakers and the British? What cultural nuances are important to be aware of? Do you work with English-speaking clients?

I primarily work with clients who speak English, fewer with native speakers, although such requests do arise. I work with mixed couples, including Russian-speaking clients married to British people. These couples have some unique aspects that create challenges and require clarification. Firstly, there's a difference in emotional expression. Part of British culture is the display of expressiveness without emotionality (exaggerated and accentuated friendliness, politeness, enthusiasm when addressing someone). In Russian culture, however, it's customary to be reserved in expressing positive emotions and transparent about negative ones; it's much more acceptable to show one's mood. Secondly, British people tend to be more stoic: if something isn't going well in their personal lives, they don't complain or show it. At the same time, in Britain, it's common to hypercriticize the government, institutions, and social conditions, whereas in Russia, especially lately, this borders on treason to the country. Thirdly, the British are much more tolerant of everyday discomfort. A Russian-speaking mother may not understand why her eight-year-old child goes to school with wet hair after swimming at zero degrees Celsius, while her British spouse wouldn't even pay attention to such trivialities; it's normal here to save on heating and wear warm clothes at home. Fourthly, behind the facade of excessive politeness, Britons have a habit of teasing each other and making sarcastic remarks; it's a linguistic game for them. Russian-speaking people may take offense at this style of communication. Finally, like any native population, British people find it difficult to understand why it's challenging for an immigrant to perform simple tasks, such as replying to teachers' emails for the child, taking laundry to the laundromat, or making a doctor's appointment. And the immigrant is going through a complex immigration process, requiring a lot of effort and causing asthenia, which can lead to serious conflicts in the relationship at the initial stage. The immigrant sometimes doesn't realize they're in crisis, and their environment doesn't understand it either. The person who moved for their spouse feels they've sacrificed a significant part of their life for the other, who now owes them a bit, but the partner doesn't understand why they should owe anything. The immigrant did sacrifice something, but the local partner provides them with a lot: their environment, often their home, support in the initial period. The situation is further complicated by the fact that for British people, like many other Europeans, immigration is not perceived as a significant event; they're always moving (particularly for work) to different countries. It's easier for someone born in Britain because English is an international language, and language difficulties aren't very understandable to them. Mutual support and understanding are crucial, recognizing that people are in different realities, so many questions need to be clarified. In my view, the most important thing is for a person to be curious and want to learn about their partner. Quite often, people start to deny each other: "I won't celebrate your holidays, and in return, you won't celebrate ours"—that's a bad scenario. A good scenario is when we celebrate both, we're curious about how it's done, and such interest in different cultures turns out to be very supportive.

  • Many parents, when moving to another country, don't teach their children their native language or traditions. What's the reason behind this? How acute is the issue of identity for immigrant children, or is it not a problem at all?

I see a lot more people who want to maintain their native culture, traditions, and teach their children their native language. However, serious teaching, not just conversation but also reading and writing, requires quite a bit of effort from parents, and many don't have the resources for it. And for a child, especially growing up in an English-speaking environment, learning Russian isn't appealing because it's just an extra activity for them, not helping in socialization. Additionally, parents who are struggling to adapt themselves may fear that by doing so, they might hinder their child's assimilation. If they can't step out of the Russian-speaking environment but want to and see it as important, there's hope to do so through their child or at least push them towards the English side. Immigrant children, born in a new country or arriving at a young age, will choose their identity one way or another: they may start developing their national part of identity, or they may not. Perhaps in adolescence, when it's important to interact with peers, they'll distance themselves from their parents and native language, but this could also be part of the separation process (in their home country, they would have done it in some other way). It's not good if such separation scares parents at the beginning of immigration, and they start to stop it, as it will negatively affect the child's development. On the contrary, it's important to support their assimilation intentions, give them support and traditions so they know them and can also appropriate them. Perhaps as they grow older, they'll become interested in the culture of the home country and their roots. It's great if the child has flexibility and freedom, where parents allow them to preserve their culture and language while not hindering (which sometimes happens) their assimilation processes.

  • What problems do immigrant children face, besides the change in their familiar environment and country?

The main problem for immigrant children is parents who are in the process of adaptation and have significantly fewer resources for the child than before. They stop noticing the child with their difficulties; the child may end up alone because they lost friends in their home country and are forced to assimilate into a new school, build new connections, but the parents aren't providing enough support.

  • These days are tough—many families have stopped communicating due to differing political views, for example. But the generational conflict didn't arise just a year ago, and it can't be justified solely by politics. What to do when ties with parents are breaking?

In such a conflict, both sides experience a lot of negative emotions, including sadness and guilt. Emotionally, this rupture is experienced as a loss. But it's not specific to immigration because relationship ruptures can happen even if people live in the same country or city.

  • How to deal with the fear that your parents are far away and you might not have the chance to come to them when needed?

The fear that parents may not be there or may face a difficult situation is understandable, natural, not pathological, and all you can do with it is to try to protect your parents from unforeseen situations (find a responsible person and ensure supervision). This reduces anxiety somewhat, although it doesn't eliminate the fear for loved ones. And it's important not to postpone anything, to talk to them and do everything now while they're alive.

  • The phrase "close the gestalt" has now become a meme, but what does it really mean in therapy? And how to come to terms with the fact that you may never return to the country where you were born?

This phrase implies recognizing and expressing one's feelings associated with some unfinished situation or experience from the past, which allows controlling its influence on our present. As for returning to the home country... "Never" sounds too dramatic, nobody knows the future. I remember well how in the early 1980s, my parents' friends left with the feeling that they would never come back, but in the 1990s, when they came to visit, they walked the streets of Moscow again. Psychologist Gianni Francesetti, discussing human losses, talks about developing two loyalties: loyalty to lost relationships and loyalty to life. That is, it's important to acknowledge that something valuable has been lost while finding some commitment to current and future life. Everyone maintains loyalty to the past differently: some write articles or books about the past and present of their homeland, some open restaurants serving national cuisine, some talk about their culture and language. Maintaining an interest in the new life and finding a place for one's past seems very significant to me and helps to cope with the fact that it's currently impossible to return home.
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