Currently in China many individuals migrate from rural areas to urban centers in order to work and cover their financial needs, which has been characterized as ‘the most magnificent population reshuffling in modern history’ (Gong, Hu, Xiao, Zhao, Zhao, Zhong, 2013, 1). This rural migration is coordinated by a set of legislations, which influence all aspects of the lives (work, housing, social interactions) of the migrants in a large extend. In essence, ‘the urban- rural dual system refers to an institutional obstacle to the equal development between urban and rural areas’ (Jiang, Li, 2018, 4). The legislation that governs their lives has an impact on practical aspects, but also, in the psychological well being of the migrants. Rural migrants of China are facing heightened stress and mental health risks because of their overall living conditions in the cities, the working conditions, and the social condiotions they are facing.
Migrants leave their home towns and their families and come to work in the cities. Due to financial reasons and lack of work- breaks, they are not able to visit often- thus they miss their family members. This is a source of stress that is linked to migration in general- individuals worry and experience anxiety about their loved ones. This factor can also make them experience feelings of sadness, prolonged sorrow, depression, and overall worst mental health. Migrants also lack the support provided through the family, and the emotional warmth of it (Crisp, 2010). Having individuals to rely on for psychological support can function as a mental health ‘shield’, fact which migrant lack (Chen, Hall, Latkin, Wu, Zhou, 2014). In fact it has been found that the mental health status of internal migrants in China is generally worse than that of local residents, even if they live in the same city (Fang, Fu, Guan, Guo, He, Liu, Wang, 2017).
Still, these individuals go through the process of migration in order to be able to provide to themselves and to their families more effectively. Despite this effort, rural migrants experience great levels of uncertainty for their future and the future of their children. The current legislation arranging the lives of migrants provides certain benefits to them, but denies them of others. Specifically, individuals may work, but they do not necessarily have insurance, and there is no standard means or time of payment (Fan, Wang, 2012). Those practical factors can cause high levels of stress, and can cause individuals to feel anxious about their present and their future. Moreover, the children of these migrants do not have the same legal rights in the cities as do the children of the local, urban citizens: they are educated in certain schools only, where children of every migrant (rural or other) go, and it has been argued that these schools lack educational quality. It is also worth mentioning that children of internal migrants, which were numbered ‘277.89 million in 2010’ have been found to have lower mental health status compared to children of local citizens. These children cannot make friends easily and tend to feel socially excluded both in the school settings and in social interactions (Jiang, Li, 2018, 4). Therefore rural migrants experience uncertainty for their offsprings which is another great source of anxiety for them. Uncertainty about the future can give rise to thoughts and feelings of helplessness, frustration, hopelessness (Crisp, 2010).
Furthermore, rural migrants may be allowed to come work in the cities, but they are maintain their properties in their hometowns. This is due to the legislation of Hukou, according to which migrants are not allowed to own or rent a property with equal rights as the urban citizens, so most migrants have their homes and families at their hometown, and move alone to urban centers (Huang, Tao, 2015). Upon moving into the cities they experience poor living conditions: they live in small dormitories, that often share some rooms (such as kitchen or bathroom), often rented by their employers, in order for that to be an inexpensive way of living. The environment therefore has been described as highly regulated, overcrowded, and with poor fascilities that do not cover the needs of the residents. Poor living conditions can give rise to a set of negative thoughts and emotions (stress, anxiety, sadness, psychological pressure) and worsen the mental health of the migrants. Living conditions will also influence the day-to-day mood of individuals. These conditions highly influence particularly the Chinese population since home, family, and a sense of belonging are important to the Chinese culture (Crisp, 2010).
These conditions have an impact in the social sphere of the migrants as well. They experience practical social exclusion, since they do not have the same social rights as urban citizens. This means that the migrants have a social ‘world’ of their own,. The two groups tend to not interact very much since they have different spaces of leisure time: usually they spend time in different places- different restaurants, different shops, etc (Li, Rose, 2017). Interestingly, it has been found that interaction between migrants and local citizens can have a negative effect in the mental health of the migrants, since the social exlusion they experience and the difference in the social status is made apparent. On the other hand, migrants do not interact a lot with other rural migrants, thus do not develop strong ingroup relations (Crisp, 2010). On top, migrants due to their working schedule have little leisure time to rest, relax and bond with others. In fact it has been found that the majority of migrant do not ‘trust’ their communities, and perceive them negatively (Chen, Hall, Latkin, Wu, Zhou, 2014). All these factors combined lead migrants to not having solid social networks in the cities to which they can rely for psychological support, not experiencing a sense of belonging, and not feel socially accepted or adapted. This is an intense source of psychological trouble, since it both causes issues in the everyday lives of individuals and does not provide means to cope with them effectively (Fan, Wang, 2012, Crisp, 2010).
These conditions impact the way migrants are approached by local urban citizens as well, who approach migrants as socially different from them. Migrants are treated through stereotyped views and experience stigmatization. This is apparent in the social interactions among the two groups. Stigma can lead to a sense of non- belonging, which can have an impact on their mental health. Experiencing stigma can lead to not having a solid social identity, feeling as an ‘outsider’, having lower self- esteem, feeling depressed, and many more (Crisp, 2010).
All these combined lead migrants to experience identity issues: they no longer belong to the rural population, neither they belong to the urban one. They may be parts of a family, but live their everyday lives alone. They work hard but do not have appropriate rewards. These individuals are migrants in their own country, experiencing every difficulty of migration, despite being so close to their actual homes (Fan, Wang, 2012, Crisp, 2010).
Overall, migrants leave their families and homes, and come to work long hours with little rest, live in small crowded dormitories, and experience stigma every day. At the same time they lack psychological support, and worry about their future and that of their loved ones. All these factors can make migrants experience higher levels of stress in their everyday lives, worst mental health, and be at risk for manifesting mental disorders and dysfunctionalities. It has been found that internal migrants have higher levels of depression, alcohol use, experience traumatic events intensly, and are at risk of manifesting self- harming behaviours, which can result in ‘disabilities or even dealth’ (Chen, Hall, Latkin, Wu, Zhou, 2014, Gong, Hu, Xiao, Zhao, Zhao, Zhong, 2013, 1-2).
Efforts should be made to address the issue of internal migration in China and improve the life quality of rural migrants. Mental health professionals should research and deal clinically with existing migrants, in an effort to improve their mental health status, social scientists should create campaigns to minimize stigma from local urban citizens, and policy makers should aim at altering the aspect of legislation that are harmful to the everyday lives and mental health of individuals (for example Hukou).
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Crisp, R., J., (2010). The Psychology of Social and Cultural Diversity, UK, Wiley- Blackwell Publications
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