Religion and Mental Health: The Migrant Experience

Frank Purcell In observance of Mental Health Week, Shepparton Interfaith Network in collaboration with Voices for Harmony conducted a forum, Religion and Mental Health at GOTAFE on Friday, 9th October. In this account, local president of the St Vincent de Paul North-East conference, Dr Frank Purcell, examines how religion was a bulwark, a support for those experiencing stress years past. Dr Purcell takes a look at migration to Shepparton by Italian, Greek and Albanian communities, and the challenges faced by those migrating from the Middle East in this day and age.

Voices for Harmony - Forum on Religion and Mental Health

This forum is timely, given what is happening in Australia today:

  • Media headlines report the radicalisation of a number of young Muslims;
  • Anti-Muslim demonstrations are being organised around our country;
  • Australia is about to receive refugees, Christian and Muslim, fleeing sectarian warfare in Syria;
  • Minorities in Buddhist majority Myanmar and Sri Lanka are fleeing discrimination and seeking asylum in our region;
  • Hindus are discriminating against minority religious groups in India;
  • Catholic and Protestant Christians were in serious conflict in Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years in the 20th century.

All these factors seem to indicate that religion is bad news for the peace, harmony and mental health of a community. Yet, historically,

"religious organisations were often the first to offer compassionate care to the mentally ill ... ... (but) the teachings of Freud and others during the early twentieth century concerning the neurotic influences of religion have had an enormous impact on the field, nullifying the quite favourable views toward religion held by nineteenth century psychiatrists".

The negative effects of religion on health have certainly been documented for some aspects of religious beliefs and behaviour and under certain conditions.

Nevertheless, there is mounting scientific evidence of a positive association between religious involvement and people's health.

  • The strongest evidence points to a link between regular participation in religious services and mortality, with higher levels of attendance at religious ceremonies linked to a strong, consistent and often graded reduction in mortality risk.
  • There is also evidence of lower levels of anxiety and depression among those who participate regularly in religious ceremonies (and the sense of belonging to a community which goes with that).
  • Health practices and social ties are important pathways by which religion can affect health.
  • Other potential pathways include the provision of systems of meaning and feelings of strength to cope with stress and adversity.

When I was invited to act as Master of Ceremonies for this forum today, my initial reaction was to acknowledge to myself that I know a bit about religion, but not much about mental health. As a result I attended an open day at the Mental Illness Fellowship here in Shepparton earlier this week. I was struck by their CHIME summary of the elements that are needed for mental health: Connectedness, Hope, Identity, Meaning, Empowerment. As the lack of those elements in the life of a migrant family can cause culture shock, could that be a significant factor in the radicalisation of young Muslims?

Culture Shock

Culture shock is certainly a reality for most migrants and unless they find connectedness, hope, identity, meaning and empowerment in Australian society, they will experience a sense of alienation and rejection. That is an issue which I think needs to be explored in looking at the causes of radicalisation among young Muslims.

Culture shock is closely linked to religious beliefs and practices. Even people who do not think of themselves as particularly religious come out of cultures which have been built on religious beliefs, practices and rituals which become part of a persons very identity.

Human beings are social animals. Unlike other social animals which rely on instinct to guide them in living together, human beings have to learn their rules for living together from the group or society in which they live. This learning process is only possible if some means of communication enables the members of the group to interact with one another, to learn from one another and to transmit the lessons of the group's shared behaviour to the new generations. This process is demanded by the need for survival. The society "must work out for itself a set of norms, standards, and expectations for successful living" and pass those on to all members of the group. That process of transmitting the lessons of the shared behaviour is called enculturation.

Historically religious beliefs, practices, rituals and values have impacted on the way people relate to one another in communities, on the behavioural patterns which influence the construction of a community's social and political institutions and its overall culture. In this way, the major world religions have nourished the development of the great historical civilisations.

In pre-industrial societies, it was assumed that religious diversity was a threat to social cohesion whereas religious uniformity was seen to provide the shared vision of meaning which would bind the society together. In pre-modern periods a dominant religion was the basis for social cohesion. In such societies religious affiliation was part of belonging to a community and it was difficult to provide equality of rights and opportunities for minorities.

Albanian Mosque, Shepparton

The Albanian Mosque, Shepparton, was constructed in 1960, circa

The Migrant Experience

Many migrants to Australia come from cultures embedded in religion. Charles Taylor uses the term "embedded religion" to describe those East Asian religions and Catholicism in the Middle Ages, in which religious identity is by descent, kinship and ethnicity rather than by personal belief. Such religion is very focused on getting the local spirits, ancestors or patron saints to take care of people in this present life - a 'mixture of the sacred and secular, of the transcendent and the immanent'. They are religions of ritual more than commitments of personal belief.

In a democracy, such a role for religion is no longer an adequate basis for citizenship. It is no longer possible to build social cohesion on such religious uniformity. Nevertheless there has to be a basic agreement within a community about the terms within which disagreement, conflict and critique of other views takes place. This acceptance of the rules of engagement, as it were, is the basis of social cohesion.

Many new migrants to Australia come from cultures in which there is no separation of church and state. The separation of church and state is intended to avoid the preferencing of one religion over all others in the society. Such a separation minimises the risk of opening the way to theocratic systems and to restrictions on religious freedom. All citizens have equal rights.

This is a potential area of difficulty for migrants coming into western societies from non-western cultures where civil and religious authority and power over the community are not separated as in secular democracies.

The lessons of Shepparton's pre-World War II experience in integrating new migrants are important. Italian, (Catholics), Greek (Orthodox) and Albanian (Muslims) integrated well into Shepparton society. Because of their farming skills, they understood how to look after animals, grow vegetables and fruit, were able to get work and were used to hard physical work. They were gradually acknowledged to be reliable, good workers and became part of the growing multicultural community. Initially though, all to some extent experienced some degree of culture shock.

In their experience, the roles of men and women were different in various ways: kids didn't have the traditional respect due to parents back home, girls dressed immodestly by home country standards. Hence each of those groups looked to their traditional religious communities for support during that process. I always remember being surprised at the number of Italian men attending Mass on Sundays in Shepparton. But I came to realise that they were seeking the support of their fellow migrants as they went through the process of becoming Australian. They had to protect their traditional identities until they were reassured that Australian values and political structures were not a threat to their own key values. Then, as they came to recognise that the best of Australian values were no threat to their central religious and personal identities, they accepted those values and felt connected, hopeful, reassured and secure in their new Italian-Australian identity, found meaning and empowerment as they sensed their acceptance in the wider community. Consequently they became integrated, not assimilated, members of the Australian community.

That process is not always as easy for the children of migrant families. They grow up in a family still strongly influenced by the values and traditions of their country of origin, but they, the children, grow up strongly influenced by the dominant Anglo-Irish institutions and values of the wider society. Children who are uncertain of their identity, who have difficulty in coping with school life and the wider community around them, who miss out on work or educational opportunities, can become very angry and resentful of the situation in which they find themselves. One of the basic reasons for that is the difference in religious beliefs and the normative beliefs, customs and rituals which they encounter as they enter more fully into Australian society.

It may well explain to some extent the rebelliousness that many migrant families experience as their children become teenagers and enter into early adulthood. There is a conflict of cultures and unless that is addressed, serious problems can arise in families and in the wider community.

The Modern Migrant Experience

Today, new migrants from the Middle East and Africa are still going through culture shock, but they don't have the work opportunities which earlier migrants had. The lack of good English language skills among many of the religious leader limits their ability to engage with younger members of their communities. The latter can find themselves half Australian and half Middle Eastern or African and confused. Their own families, often themselves in culture shock, lack the language and understanding of Australian values to help their young people who can become quite angry because of their confused identity issues. Much depends on how well they sense acceptance and a growing sense of belonging.

Are these the kind of kids being sought and recruited by the religio-political ideogogues intent on restoring the Islamic State?

One of the supports Italian families had in the Shepparton area was the presence of fluent English speaking Italian priests who were able to help families address these challenges. In the case of Muslim families, the support from Imams in Australia has to include grappling with the challenges which the separation of Religion and State and the adoption of Universal Human Rights poses for Muslims coming from Muslim States. Unlike the Italian priests in Shepparton, few of the Imams here have the language skills to be able to engage in serious discussions in English on these important questions.

Until religious leaders realise the importance of addressing the universality of human rights and the necessity of the separation of Religion and State in Australia, social cohesion is going to be at risk. In addition, young people angry over their confused identity issues will be very vulnerable to fundamentalist interpreters of religious texts manipulated to justify naked political tactics in the search for power.

Some weeks past, a young Muslim man who arrived in Shepparton in 2011 at 18 years of age, spoke publicly at a refugee support rally. Four years ago he had refused a language school program in favour of entering Year 10 in a local high school. At that time he hadn't one word of English. His speech revealed a command of English language and pronunciation which I envied. Young men and women with those skills who are over their culture shock and have good English could be invaluable help to the religious leaders of the migrant communities in coming to terms with some of the issues which need to be addressed.

Australia may not need the full force of anti-terrorist security measures to limit the radicalisation of young Muslims. Some serious interfaith dialogue and cultural exchanges may be just as important for solving this problem.

About Voices for Harmony

Voices for Harmony was started in 2007 by two Muslim men Camerun Albanoi, Azem Elmaz, and the Police Prosecutor at the time, Sgt Gordon Porter. Frank Purcell is President of the Shepparton Interfaith Network and of the St. Vincent de Paul Society across North Eastern Victoria. His work in both organisations has made him very aware of the damage that unemployment, homelessness and culture shock cause for the mental health of many people.


David R Williams and Michelle J Sternthal, Spirituality, religion and health: evidence and research directions, Med J Aust 2007; 186 (10 Suppl): S47


Over the years, many migrants worked at the SPC Cannery, Shepparton


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