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
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.