Struggling Asian Wives ‘Health Timebomb’

Struggling Asian wives 'health timebomb'

By Lincoln Tan
The New Zealand Herald
4:00AM Monday Aug 10, 2009

Asian migrant men hit by recession are moving overseas to look for work – but are leaving their wives and children in New Zealand.

The situation is developing into a “mental health timebomb” for these “suddenly single mothers” in the Asian community, and stigma and fear of “losing face” are preventing them from reaching out for help or even sharing their problems with friends, says a University of Auckland expert.

Dr Amritha Sobrun-Maharaj, director for the university's Centre for Asian Health Research and Evaluation, says urgent research is needed to understand how widespread the problem is and its impact on New Zealand.

She said the lack of research into mental health issues facing Asians in New Zealand had left authorities and health officials here at a loss on what needed to be done – or even how to reach such mental health sufferers.

The Ministry of Health states in its Asian health chart book, compiled in 2006, that “reliable estimates of the prevalence of psychiatric morbidity, such as anxiety and depressive disorders, in the Asian population are not currently available in New Zealand”.

“To have a mental health problem is considered shameful in Asian communities, and if sufferers are not reached, and they continue to be unable to interact or integrate it could have huge social and economic repercussions for New Zealand,” said Dr Sobrun-Maharaj.

She said her centre needed $400,000 to run the research over two years, but it had been unable to find funding.

Massey University academic Paul Spoonley said although many immigrants had in the past chosen to work abroad and send their families here, the “forced option” – where people who might have been here for some time have to move back because there is nothing here for them – was new and a direct effect of the recession.

Migrant advocate Kenneth Leong said many Asian businesses had been “badly hit” in the recession, and an increasing number of people had been forced to look overseas for an income.

“Many of these are small businesses in industries badly hit by the economic crisis, such as restaurants and tourism-related business.”

Unemployment in New Zealand has reached 6 per cent – and the jobless total has risen 48,000 in the past year to 138,000. It is forecast to reach levels of between 7.5 and 8 per cent.

Immigration figures show permanent migrant arrivals exceeding departures by 12,515 in the 12 months to June 30 – possibly because Kiwis hit by the economic crisis were returning with their families, whereas those leaving the country were mainly only migrant men, Mr Leong said.

Three women – two Koreans and one Malaysian – whose husbands had to find work abroad as job openings become increasingly scarce for immigrants here told the Herald they had been sinking into depression and were finding it hard to cope.

The mothers, who had children between 6 and 15, spoke anonymously because they said it could make them “lose face” among their peers.

“I cry every night since my husband went back to Korea last month without me and my son,” said one.

“We left our high-paying jobs to move to New Zealand … so that we can have more family time. Now, it has turned out that our family situation is much worse than back in Korea.”

Another said: “It is very tough, because in front of the other Korean mothers, I still have to put up a front that all is well. It would be so shameful if they found out the reason my husband had to go back was because his business failed.”