Polish and lost in Ireland: the social media solution

Ireland’s Polish community faces unusual mental health challenges, not least a culture that sees depression as taboo. Solutions include bilingual counsellors and Facebook support

Aleksandra Lojek, who set up a Polish women’s support group on Facebook, at her home in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

Aleksandra Lojek, who set up a Polish women’s support group on Facebook, at her home in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker


Two years ago, Aleksandra Lojek was facing a dark period in her life. She left Poland and came to Northern Ireland in 2008, where she worked with Polish migrants struggling with emotions she came to know herself: isolation, depression and loneliness. She created a Polish women’s support group on Facebook to provide an online resource she couldn’t find herself.

The group continues to meet, but represents a tiny portion of the almost 20,000 Poles that call Northern Ireland home. Last year, seven Poles in the North took their own lives, prompting concern about the mental health of Polish migrants. “I’m afraid if it’s unaddressed we will be dealing with a serious problem in two or three years,” Lojek says.

She is not alone in her concerns. The Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities has partnered with the Centre of Excellence for Public Health and the school of sociology, social policy and social work at Queen’s University Belfast to assess the needs of migrants struggling with mental-health issues.

“There’s a lot of research on Polish migrants, from health to economic studies, integration with local communities, how Polish migrants are portrayed in the local media – but with mental health, we haven’t come across many studies,’’ says Dr Justyna Bell, a research fellow at Queen’s.

Bell has been studying Polish migrants since she was an undergraduate, and has continued her research at Queen’s. She says mental health is a persistent issue.

“There is a notion of shame of going back to Poland when you’re a failed migrant, because you want to get this great job and then you become unemployed,” she says. “They prefer to stay here and suffer than to go back and show they failed.”

Disappointment is not the only factor that triggers mental-health issues among Polish migrants. Language barriers, separation from family and isolation can all exacerbate psychological problems.

Artur Kmiecik works for the Ethnic Minority Support Centre in Newry. He estimates 90 per cent of his clients are from eastern Europe, but has noticed a particular trend among his Polish clients. “They are very much closed in their surroundings because they go to work where everyone around speaks Polish. They come from work and go to Polish shops, they buy Polish food, they come back home and watch Polish satellite TV, so a good question is whether they left Poland at all.”

The language barrier
This presents an issue for those who wish to seek help with a therapist. While psychological services in Northern Ireland provide translators for non-English speakers, migrants may be reluctant to open up in front of a third party, especially coming from a culture that sees mental health and depression as taboo. Lojek attributes this to a cultural norm of remaining “tough” and hiding emotion.

Bell also found that lack of English was a key issue. Even if patients open up, accuracy gets lost in translation. “Your language of emotion, it’s a very deep thing you learn as a child,” she says. “So if you are talking about your feelings, it is far more precise.”

Some see bilingual psychologists as a solution. Wojciech Dylewicz is a support worker for Craigavon Intercultural Programme in Portadown. Though he has decided not to pursue a job as a psychologist in Ireland, he remains optimistic about the prospects of other Poles doing so. “I think it’s possible,” he says. “You can start by getting a job as an assistant to a clinical psychologist. I believe if somebody comes to Northern Ireland now with good knowledge and language, it shouldn’t be a problem.” But he wonders if young Polish men would seek psychological services.

Along with the Facebook initiative, Lojek also established a support group for men. She thinks that “with the right encouragement they would [seek help], but . . . they would need a person who is experienced or has gone through some tragic or traumatic experience”.

The experience of one clinic suggests she is right. My Mind, a psychological clinic with a Polish clientele of nearly 25 per cent, has three locations in the South. Kristian Fikert, a clinical psychologist and the chief executive of My Mind, discovered this need among Poles and other migrants while working as a researcher for Google.

Fikert was responsible for the eastern European market, including Poland, and had access to search queries. “We could clearly see that people were asking for doctors and psychologists and how to access those services,” he said. He started a project in his free time in 2006, providing psychological support for migrants.

My Mind provides about 850-900 therapy sessions a month, and served more than 2,000 clients last year. Almost the entire staff speak Polish and English. Fikert is considering opening a clinic in Belfast.

Funding issues
The Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and Queen’s are working to secure funds for research on the mental health and wellbeing of all ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland. “The recent proposal between Queen’s and us goes beyond the Polish community,’’ says Patrick Yu, the director of the Council for Ethnic Minorities. “We try to look at all communities to find common issues.”

Already turned down for funding by the Northern Ireland Trust, Yu awaits a response from the Public Health Agency. He will know by the end of the year and feels confident in the proposal. Yu, reflecting on recent suicides, says that “if someone [dies by] suicide from either side of the community, there will be a public outcry, but if another Polish person or Chinese person commits suicide, no one cares”.

Recession pressure: Unemployment among Poles
The income Marta Dobrowolska earned in Poland working three jobs didn’t allow her to be financially independent. She was a graphic designer, a teacher, and a fine-art painter who made €350 per month. She left Poland in 2005 and came to Ireland, where she worked in a pub, easily surpassing her previous monthly income. Marta’s story is familiar. Despite the economic calamity that has befallen Ireland, many Poles agree it still beats going home.

Poles make up the largest population of non-Irish nationals in Ireland, having reached nearly 123,000 according to the 2011 census. But times have changed since the boom. Unemployment among non-Irish nationals nearly doubled from 2006 to 2011 – 33,587 to 77,460. Of those, 18,853 were Polish nationals.

The number of PPS numbers issued to Poles peaked in 2006, at 93,787, but they decreased dramatically each year after – in 2011, only 8,087 were issued. But they are slowly rising again. Last year, 8,863 were issued, a sign that Poles are staying. For many, the reason for staying is simple economics. In Poland, the minimum monthly wage was €336.47 in 2012, compared with €1,461.85 in Ireland.

Dr Jaroslaw Plachecki, chairman of the Irish Polish Society and author of Polish Emigration in the 20th and early 21st Centuries, agrees that Poles are staying, but at a cost – they are taking jobs below their skill level: in retail, manufacturing, and hotels and restaurants.

“There are less people coming, obviously, and the figures prove it,” Plachecki said. But, he adds, “when they decide to go back to Poland they find they have to come back to Ireland. They can’t live there. People are still finding part-time jobs here.”

Artur Gryckiewicz has witnessed first-hand the effects of the recession on the Polish community regarding access to health services. He came to Ireland in 2007 to help set up EMC Healthcare, a private clinic with about 70 per cent Polish clientele. “We lost quite a huge population of patients, I think up to approximately 1,500,” he said. “Our turnovers decreased by probably 25 per cent. With the reduced amount of patients, we had to reduce our staff, so we feel the recession quite strongly.”

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