Although relocating can be stressful, a new study at the University of Missouri found Black South Africans who migrated far away from home to find work reported better emotional well-being and were at lower risk for depression after the move on average.
As mental health and internal migration continue to be understudied components of public health research compared to physical health outcomes and international immigration, the findings of the study can help policymakers tailor resources toward underprivileged migrants after they move, as well as toward those who get left behind and are still seeking upward mobility.
“Eighty percent of South Africans are Black, yet they have a very small share of the country’s overall wealth as the legacy of Apartheid continues to be felt,” said Tyler Myroniuk, an assistant professor in the MU School of Health Professions and lead author on the study. “South Africa offers a prime example of inequality and the potential struggles that migrants undergo trying to move to overcome such inequalities, so we wanted to better understand how migrants fare after they move.”
The collapse of Apartheid in 1994 opened the floodgates of migrants throughout South Africa, mainly from rural areas to urban cities in search of economic opportunities.
“We have seen throughout history, not just in South Africa but here in the United States and all over, most migrants don’t move just for fun, they move because they have to as they seek upward mobility and economic opportunities that they often lack wherever they are from,” Myroniuk said. “Refugees who are forced to relocate tend to have far worse mental health outcomes after they move, but we know far less about the emotional well-being of those who move voluntarily.”
Myroniuk traveled to the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2017 and 2018 to analyze internal migration data from the National Income Dynamic Study from 2008 to 2015. Nearly 2,300 Black South African migrants were studied, and on average, the further away from home the migrants moved, the higher levels of emotional well-being they self-reported after the move compared to before the move.
By using longitudinal data — where researchers repeatedly examine the same individuals to detect changes that might occur over a long period of time — in this study, Myroniuk and his team were able to determine the self-reported improvements in life satisfaction came after the migration.
“Given how stressful moving can be, I was a bit surprised by the findings,” Myroniuk said. “This research can help us gain insight into why people move, and it also shows that when people move, they typically know what is best for them. They move to make things better for not just themselves but for their family as well. So, we also need to start thinking more about those who were possibly left behind and how to best help them as well.”
In 2010, Myroniuk traveled to rural Malawi in southeast Africa to research family health. It was while talking with migrants about their experiences moving long distances from other parts of the country that sparked his interest in researching this understudied population.
“As they described their motives for moving, all the hurdles they faced along the way and all the risk and uncertainty involved, I admired their resilience in the midst of such highly unequal circumstances,” Myroniuk said. “In the context of public health research, physical health outcomes and international immigrants tend to be studied quite often, but the emotional well-being of voluntary, internal migrants is an understudied topic as they move within their home country. Yet it happens all the time, far more often than international immigration, and I think people worldwide can relate to the stress and uncertainty that comes with moving.”
While conducting research in 2012, Myroniuk remembers seeing migrants on the move away from an isolated township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. The isolated township offered few services and was not on the electric grid. The migrants’ personal belongings were stacked 12 feet high in the back of a pickup truck as they travelled to their next destination.
“While those who moved may have found work and were able to send some money back home to support their families, this study also indirectly highlights those who were potentially left behind, those who may have wanted to move but could not for financial or other reasons,” Myroniuk said. “As migrants and their families tend to be a vulnerable, insecure population, this research can hopefully lead to policymakers identifying vulnerable individuals in local primary care settings and tailoring support and resources to help those in need who are searching for upward mobility.”
As a public health researcher, Myroniuk has previously studied barriers and facilitators to accessing HIV treatment for older adults in South Africa, where HIV is more prevalent than other parts of the world.
“Whether it’s HIV or COVID-19, the pandemic has definitely put a spotlight on the spread of infectious diseases and the physical health impacts of these diseases,” Myroniuk said. “However, as medicine improves and people are living longer, it is also important to think about the mental health and emotional well-being of vulnerable populations, so this research is a small step in the right direction to spark further conversations.”
“Post-migration emotional well-being among Black South Africans” was recently published in Social Science and Medicine – Mental Health. Co-authors on the study include Michael White at Brown University and Sangeetha Madhavan at the University of Maryland.