The Irish diaspora is one of the largest in the world, with approximately 10 million Irish emigrants worldwide. The majority have settled in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest and are considered to be in the “late generation ethnicity” stage, having emigrated to the U.S. in successive waves since the 19thcentury, but not replenished by new immigration. Recent research has found that the primary concern of diaspora members centers on fears of losing its collective memory and Irish identity. Chicago, the site for this study, has an Irish community composed of third and fourth generations as well as newer immigrants that came post-1980s and 90s due to a fluctuating Irish economy. This paper fills a gap in the literature by identifying the experiences, identity, and needs of the Irish diaspora living in Chicago, with an emphasis on mental health.
This study uses a community based participatory approach. All stages of the research process were completed in collaboration with community members, including the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support (CIIS). The study surveyed members (n=330) of the Irish diaspora living in the Chicago metropolitan area using purposive sampling. Both an online and paper version of the survey were distributed using social networks such as the Irish Cultural Center and the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support Center. The survey consisted of quantitative and qualitative questions relating to migration; family, employment, economic, physical health, mental health needs; awareness/utilization of services; and cultural and political identity, social needs, and vulnerability. The quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistics and the open ended survey responses were coded and thematically analyzed using NVivo.
The Irish American community in Chicago can be considered to be in the “late generation ethnicity” stage with an economically and politically successful community. However, it is also a diverse community with pockets of vulnerability, including the undocumented and the elderly. A less visible area of need is in the area of mental health. Sixty five percent (n=257) report that they or a family member has been diagnosed with a mental health issue, yet they also report challenges accessing mental health services due to stigma around psychological distress. Forty five percent of respondents (n=233) reported that embarrassment or shame would prevent someone from the Irish community from seeking mental health services and 42.51% (n=167) reported that someone within the Irish community is less likely to seek help compared to other groups due to stigma. A discrepancy was noted between identified needs compared to the perceived need for assistance. For instance, several respondents disclosed experiencing a recent psychosocial crisis, but denied needing assistance.
Given the distinct pattern of immigrant adaptation of the Irish diaspora, implications for immigrant adaptation theory are discussed as well as the ways in which community agencies can offer services considering needs across generational status. The mental health needs of the Irish diaspora appear to be largely invisible to service providers, but results underscore the importance of specific Irish immigrant support centers and their role in providing front line services.