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Acculturative Stress Syndrome, Refugee Immigration, and the Church

Missing Pieces

Bruno Catalano, a French-Italian artist, is best known for creating sculptures of figures with substantial sections missing. His art stems from being a displaced immigrant himself over the years. His art reflects the journey and challenges woven into being a displaced immigrant. The missing pieces reflect much of what is left behind when someone leaves a part of themselves in terms of their mother country. Oftentimes this includes changes in language, food, culture, family, friends, and place of worship. Catalano captures this phenomenon well, in terms of the immigrant experience. These life changes and impacts are especially true of an individual and family that are torn from their country due to war/invasion, financial suffering, or threats of physical, emotional, or harm due to political affiliation or faith tradition.

The Ukraine Exodus

As a result of the War/Invasion in Ukraine, over 2.5 Million refugees are fleeing Ukraine to nearby countries: Poland, Romania, Italy, Germany, Spain, and other Western Europe Countries. Unlike typical immigration, Ukrainian families and individuals are forced to flee where women and children are generally allowed to cross the border to a safer and supportive country, while Ukrainian men of a particular age (18-60) are required to stay behind, pick up arms, and defend their country. This is the largest exodus from fleeing refugees in Europe, since World War II. The consequences of this exodus are many, financial, physical, emotional distress, including the potential for long-term mental health impact.

Acculturative Stress Syndrome

Long studied, researchers have known that separation from family, friends, culture, and country can have an immediate and long-term negative impact on wellness and mental health. Naturally occurring support systems are sometimes temporarily or permanently dismantled. In the case of Ukraine, and the causes and consequences of war/invasion, the aftermath can be devastating. The experience of some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a realistic conclusion for many. Still and lesser-known, acculturative stress syndrome can have long and severe consequences as well. These include depression, substance/alcohol abuse, anxiety-related disorders, even thoughts of death. Complicated by challenges and suffering in leaving behind those people, places, and experiences that may never be the same, have been destroyed or even killed. The consequences on over 2.5 million families fleeing their homeland, with continuous worry about their loved ones, have also never truly been understood.

Culturally Competent Care

Research suggests that from those that come from different cultural backgrounds, knowledge about culture, language, and history are important components in providing culturally competent care. Having at the very least, a competent translator while providing counseling, therapy, and care is critical. Understanding the symptoms of acculturative stress and the consequences to mental health, anxiety, depression, and particularly substance or alcohol abuse, will be important. It is essential that those working with this population should do their best to understand traditions, faith, culture, and the challenges in terms of acculturative stress and refugee experiences.

The Role of the Church

For many immigrants, transitioning to a church that honors their particular faith tradition is important. Connecting refugees to churches that have an understanding of a support system to aid immigrants/refugees will be helpful. Re-connecting immigrants with a church to help them worship, pray, fellowship, and anchor to their particular faith traditions will also assist in the healing process. Faith traditions generally provide existential but important components to a person’s mental health recovery; oftentimes providing resources to counseling, substance abuse treatment options, and facilitating group types of therapy. Further, prayer, hope, meaning, purpose, and understanding are often experienced, expressed, and reconciled within the walls of the church family. Research suggests that many immigrants from Ukraine, may also not have a particular church focus or tradition (more than 50%). This provides an opportunity for church communities within the host country to reach, provide support, reflect their values, and establish connections to and with the refugee individual or family.

For more information on Acculturative Stress Syndrome:


Authors: Marty Harris, Ph.D., Rev. Mike Neciuk, Ph.D., Gabriela Alvarez, MBA, Yvette Robles, MS

(LABI College, La Puente, CA.)

Dr. Marty Harris has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, is a clinical fellow of the American Psychological Association’s Minority Fellowship Program, and serves as president of LABI College and professor of clinical psychology. LABI College is the oldest Hispanic Bible College in the United States. Questions or comments related to this article should be sent to Dr. Marty Harris:

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