Social determinants of psychiatric morbidity and well-being in immigrant elders and whites in east London

E R Silveira, S Ebrahim
International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 1998, 13 (11): 801-12

OBJECTIVES: The social conditions under which migrants to the UK live may be more significant than the experience of migration itself in leading to increased risk of mental illness. We aimed to compare the prevalence of mental, physical and social health problems in elderly Somalis, Bengalis and whites living in a deprived inner London area and examine associations between environmental circumstances, social support, physical health status, mood and life satisfaction in these groups. In addition, we wanted to test the hypothesis that differences in mental health between immigrants and whites are explained by social disadvantages rather than ethnicity.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional survey with participants drawn from age-sex registers of general practices, augmented by other sources.

SETTING: East London--'first-generation' Somali and Bengali immigrants and white British.

SUBJECTS: A total of 274 people aged 60+ years: 72 Somalis, 75 Bengalis and 127 whites.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression Scale (SAD), Life Satisfaction Index (LSI). High SAD scores indicate more anxiety and depression symptoms; high LSI scores indicate greater life satisfaction.

MAIN RESULTS: Highest SAD scores were found among Bengalis; lowest LSI scores were found among Bengalis and Somalis. The prevalences of depression (SAD score 6+) were 25% in Somalis, 77% in Bengalis and 25% in east London whites. Physical health status and SAD scores were associated in Somalis (r = +0.31, p < or = 0.01). Bengalis (r = +0.47, p < or = 0.001) and east London whites (r = +0.27, p < or = 0.01). Physical health problems also related to lower LSI scores in Somalis (r = -0.24, p < or = 0.05) and east London whites (r = -0.24, p < or = 0.01). Social factors (i.e. poor housing conditions, low family support and reported need of community services) were strongly associated with SAD scores among Somalis (r = +0.5, p < or = 0.001) and, to a lesser extent, among Bengalis (r = +0.33, p < or = 0.01). Ethnicity (i.e. being an immigrant as opposed to a non-immigrant) became a statistically non-significant risk factor for high SAD scores after adjusting for the effects of age, weekly income, physical health and social problems (OR = 0.71, 95% CI = 0.5-1.1, p = 0.09). A residual, but much attenuated effect for ethnicity on LSI scores persisted in the estimated model after controlling for the same set of independent risk factors (OR = 0.7, 95% CI = 0.4-1, p = 0.05).

CONCLUSION: The marked variation in mental health between ethnic groups in east London might be a reflection of socioeconomic and health differentials acting concomitantly and adversely. Inequalities in housing, social support, income and physical health status accounted for variation in mood observed between immigrants and whites, and may partly explain differences in life satisfaction. These results seem to support a 'multiple jeopardy' theory of ageing in ethnic minorities in east London. Greater efforts are needed to recognize anxiety and depression in immigrant elders. Better social support and housing among 'minority ethnic' elders who live alone might be expected to alleviate social stress and improve mental health and psychological well-being.

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