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Migration good for mental health

03 July 2009

Psychiatrists from the Institute of Psychiatry teamed up with researchers in Thailand to examine the impact of rural-urban migration on the mental health of parents. Such migration is increasing among young people in developing countries, and it has been suggested that parents may experience loneliness, isolation and depression when their children move away.

The team surveyed 1,147 parents aged 60 and over living in villages in rural Thailand. They found that depression was less common among parents with all their children living outside the district, compared to parents with some or all of their children living locally. Depression was highest among parents of poorer families with all their children still living in the local area.

Dr Abas and her colleagues put forward two explanations for their findings in Thailand. First, families where all the children migrate to urban areas may have existing advantages over families from where migration is less common.

For example, the parents in the study whose children had all left home tended to be better educated, and were more likely to be younger, married and still working themselves. These factors all reduce their risk of depression. In contrast, having few children migrate could be linked to failed aspirations, increasing the risk for family conflict and depression.

Second, migration can bring financial benefits to families. Children who move away usually send remittances home to their parents, which can lift parents out of poverty and boost their mental health and well-being. Very few Thai people receive a pension, and rely on children as their main source of cash income.

Although these findings are not universal potential links with the UK might be the possibility that parents derive satisfaction and self-esteem when their children move away to pursue their aspirations and make a success of their career or education. Also, as in the UK, when Thai offspring leave the village, they still make a great effort to go home for important festivals and public holidays which is meaningful to parents. However, Thai offspring send money home to support their parents which is not part of UK culture.

Reference: Abas MA, Punpuing S, Jirapramukpitak T, Guest P, Tangchonlatip K, Leese M and Prince M (2009) Rural-urban migration and depression in ageing family members left behind, British Journal of Psychiatry, 195: 54-60

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