The stresses of daily city life exact an even harsher toll on the health of New York City’s immigrants, which comprise nearly 30 percent of the city’s population, according to a new report by a city-based health advocacy organization.
The report, “Immigrant Communities: Bridging Cultures for Better Health,” by the New York Academy of Medicine, is based on interviews with nearly 3,000 New Yorkers representing more than 10 ethnic groups including those from West Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia detailing mental and physical health and those factors that have the greatest negative impact.
“Immigrant populations report an overwhelming combination of stressors that impact their health,” said Linda Weiss, PhD, lead author of the report.
The report cited a number of key factors affecting city immigrants’ health such as discrimination, social isolation due to long work hours, limited language skills, a lack of knowledge about health care options, and exhaustion.
“Certain immigrant groups, including the Chinese and Arabic communities, noted particularly high smoking rates and were concerned about related health issues,” Weiss said.
Further, Weiss noted that many immigrants find themselves in occupations that carry inherent health risks, such as those in construction.
In the past few years there has been a marked increase in the numbers of undocumented workers being killed in NYC construction accidents.
Most recently, the city’s nail salon workers have been found to be not only subject to long hours and low pay but also endangered health from the constant inhalation of nail polishes and powerful solvents.
Weiss added that other risks were connected to jobs with long hours and low pay, such as taxi drivers, vendors and clerks.
“…with a 16 hour work day, one does not have time for rest or leisure that are important for mental health, as well as time to exercise or eat healthy meals which reduce the risk of chronic disease,” Weiss said.
Immigrants’ psychological stress was also cited as a factor that cuts across varied ethnic groups.
“The Arab population, because of the political problems in the Middle East, they feel unsafe. … They are scared all the time. They are afraid to go anywhere or speak out… problems like mental health issues are on the rise in our community,” said an Arab community health advocate in the report.
Dmitri Oster of One World Counseling in Brooklyn, a behavioral health treatment program that serves immigrants from South and Central Asia, said he’s had patients showing psycho-somatic symptoms.[tab]
“Oftentimes, patients will come in complaining of headaches, muscle tensions, and dizziness,” Oster said.
And, economic pressures on recent immigrants as well as all New Yorkers are an omnipresent source of worry.
“Your life is full of stress, and this leads to depression,” said a South Asian focus group participant. “…You pay the babysitter ten dollars. When you go to work, you get ten dollars.”
Asked about solutions to improve the health of city immigrants, Weiss and other advocates said it’s important to address underlying conditions that create the health concerns in the first place.
“A living wage, safe work conditions, affordable housing, and access to healthy foods in all neighborhoods represent important solutions for immigrants and U.S. born New Yorkers alike,” Weiss said.
Theo J. Oshiro, deputy director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant and working class advocacy group based in Bushwick, said that more must be done.
“If someone is working 16 hours a day for less than minimum wage and being evicted from their apartment at the same time, no amount of medical support will fully get them on the path toward well-being.”