Insights from Intercultural Clinical Psychology: An interview with Dr. Betty Goguikian Ratcliff (by Marianna Pogosyan)

Dr. Betty Goguikian Ratcliff is the head of the Intercultural and Interpersonal Clinical Psychology Unit at the University of Geneva. She has been working with the migrant population for twenty years, after her studies of psychopathology and mental health of migrants.

Migrant wellbeing is a topic close to her heart not only for professional reasons. Born in Lebanon into an Armenian and Syrian family, she has been calling Geneva her home for the past 35 years. She talked to me about her insights from her research at the front lines of intercultural clinical psychology and her work with migrants, as well as the field of cross-cultural psychology.

MP: What are some of the common themes and issues that affect the wellbeing of individuals during cultural transitions?

BGR: The most common theme is loss. It depends on the stage where the patient is. During the first stage, people have to understand how the new society works and all the differences that they are confronted with, which include values, attitudes, behaviors, language, religion, and for children – new school systems and family value discrepancies. Then they have to position themselves to find an open door and to build a new network, to build interpersonal relationships and to start being connected – first to a small group, then to a larger group. These are the main challenges.

Other common issues are about adjustment, identity change and behavioral shifts. The most favorable outcome is when people can move smoothly from one cultural frame to another without feeling in conflict, or when they are able to travel mentally from one culture to another by allowing themselves to belong to both cultures.

MP: What can people do to adjust more successfully to other cultures?

BGR: For migrants, the key factor for integration is to learn the local language. Another one is to be exposed to the local culture in order not to struggle with social isolation. To accelerate the process of adjustment they need to have formal and informal contact with the locals. It can be easier for kids, since they are in school and they are more exposed to the local culture through the teachers and their schoolmates. In some cases, mothers stay at home and don’t learn the local language, creating a barrier to integration.

MP: How are adults and children different in the way they adapt?

BGR: Children adapt easier because they are more flexible and the school is a socialization agent. But when they feel that their parents are having a negative attitude towards their host culture, they may experience cultural gap and conflict. The outcomes of such loyalty conflicts can result in anxiety, depression and other negative emotions. It can be very stressful to feel like you have to be between two cultures that are hostile. Adults, on the other hand, are able to take a metacognitive attitude. They can attach less importance on cultural differences and focus more on universalities and common goals.

They can consider differences as something to learn from. They are not so immediate and more rational. Children try to avoid feeling different. They try to adapt and be like everyone else. Adults can sometimes feel like they want to preserve their differences. They might feel like they are betraying their values if they are adapting to the new culture, so they keep their cultural distance. Cultural adaptation is not a linear process. You are always revisiting your identity. It’s a very individual way of positioning yourself in front of a culture.

MP: Have you noticed any particular personality characteristics that make people more resilient or vulnerable to transition stress?

BGR: Research doesn’t show a direct link between personality traits or individual variables and acculturation outcomes. There are a lot of situational variables that also need to be considered, such as motives for migration, degree of prior knowledge of host language, ethnic attitudes of host society, pre-migratory educational background, health, social support, post-migratory life satisfaction, employment possibilities, expectations or questions like “Why did I move?” and “What are my prospects here?” There are a lot of profiles that are embedded into situational factors that will influence the acculturation process and how people cope with transition.

MP: What has surprised you most from your personal experiences with working with the migrant population?

BGR: I have been working with migrants for 20 years and I feel that they are very strong, courageous and resourceful. When they start to get better and when they start to see the migration as an opportunity more than a loss, they start having a very rich experience. Some of them give a spiritual meaning to difficulties and try to keep their roots alive, seeing them as a source of strength. I am full of admiration for my migrant patients, and I travel mentally with them. They open me to other worlds and other logics. I learn from them and I maintain my own roots.

MP: What advice would you give to our readers to improve their performances as coaches and trainers and become better equipped with helping migrants to transition successfully?

BGR: The two main keys are to learn the local language and to have contact with the locals. Encourage them, have patience and understand that it is a long-term process. Also, it is important at the same time to keep in contact with the country of origin. Bad transitions are those when people think that they are starting a new life. We are never starting a new life. We are continuing our life. We cannot turn the page and say, “I want to forget everything that happened until now.” You have to keep a sense of coherence and a sense of continuity. While language and integration is outer work, keeping a sense of continuity and coherence along with redefining your identity as a multicultural identity is part of the inner work that needs to be done.

Betty Goguikian Ratcliff is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the University of Geneva. Her research activities focus on three main topics: intercultural communication and language mediation, acculturation process and adaptation strategies, and the psychopathology of migrants and refugees. Her latest research is oriented toward the issue of women and families in migration, especially perinatal health in relation with psychosocial risk factors.

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