Cultural shock and Depression in the U.S. Ethiopian community

By Hiyawkal Gizachew

The things that people value in their life really depend upon many cultural factors. For example, age, family, education, religion, nationality, and personal experiences will influence the things we hold dear. Our identities are formed in our culture. It then stands to reason, that migrating to a different culture may cause someone a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Culture Shock is a term used to describe the stress and anxiety one experiences in a new culture. An individual may be forced to learn a new language and assimilate. In addition, they may find that some of their own deeply held values may not be equally important to their new host culture. Growing up in Ethiopia, “good girl” qualities included being shy, conservative, and soft-spoken. However, in American culture, the same qualities can be mistaken for a lack of confidence and self-esteem. Young women who transition from Ethiopian culture to American culture may experience culture shock. If their values do not line up with their new environment they may feel like they are forced to choose.

Most people came to America looking for a better life for themselves and their families, some who are well educated and successful in their careers in Ethiopia. Upon arrival in America, they realize that the picture perfect image that media painted was far from the truth. That dream of a country where poverty doesn’t exist and where people reach success with little hard work is not the reality of America. Most people, no matter how well educated or how experienced, will have to start all over again. People who are willing to work hard for success may still face language barriers, value conflicts, and discrimination. The combination of these obstacles and culture shock can cause people to experience sadness, loneliness, anger, and frustration. These feelings bring about anxiety and stress and our thoughts and behaviors are affected.

We all go through ups and downs in our lives. This is a normal reaction to life’s struggles and disappointments. However, if sadness persist too long or impacts daily functioning, it might be a sign of depression. Possible symptoms of depression are as follows: sleeping too much or too little, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless and helpless, having negative thoughts, eating too much or too little, or irritability. Negative thoughts about oneself will impact behaviors. People’s thoughts (cognitions, self-statements, beliefs, assumptions, perceptions and schemata) can be distorted. Because of the busy lifestyle in America, having time to talk about our stress with family or friends is difficult to achieve. In some situations people hardly see or talk to the people they live with because of busy work schedules.

Having a counselor will provide clients with the necessary resources and healthy coping skills to deal with the depression, anxiety, and stress. Counselors will provide clients with information on the connection between their thoughts and feelings. They can help the client identify distorted thoughts, examine the validity of their perceptions, and replace faulty thoughts with beneficial thoughts.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms they should seek help and consider talking with a professional counselor. It is essential for people to understand that experiencing depression and seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It is the key to a happier life.

(Hiyawkal Gizachew, Mental Health Counselor at Northern Virginia Family Service, can be reached at [email protected])