‘Sucking It Up’ Can Be Devastating For Immigrants’ Mental Health

February 1, 2019

By Huffington Post |

“Racism is an underlying current that doesn’t get its fair share of attention in the Canadian context.”

Canada prides itself on its open immigration policies and multiculturalism, but what is often overlooked is how much of a toll immigrating, trying to fit into a new country, or facing racism as a newcomer or the child of immigrant parents, can take on your mental health.

A study published late last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that immigrant and refugee youth aged 10-14 in Canada are more likely to visit the emergency room (ER) as their first access point for medical care for mental health concerns than those born within the country.

Researchers looked at almost 119,000 youth who visited an ER for mental health concerns between 2010 and 2014 in Ontario. Slightly more than 61 per cent of the 2,194 refugee youth in the study and 57.6 per cent of 6,680 non-refugee immigrant youth had their first mental health care contact at the ER, compared to 51.3 per cent of Canadian-born youth.

The most common reasons for the visit were substance-related disorders, followed by anxiety disorders, said the study, and the lead study author, Dr. Natasha Saunders, said the results showed that immigrants and refugees may not have the same access to mental health care services as Canadian-born youth.

The role of racism and trauma
The existence of racism is often downplayed in Canada, making it difficult to properly assess and tackle how it affects the people it targets.

“Racism is an underlying current that doesn’t get its fair share of attention in the Canadian context because we have this rhetoric of multiculturalism,” says Zoua Vang, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University who researches racial and ethnic health disparities. “We’re told that everybody is on equal footing, but the reality for a person of colour is very different.”

Fardous Hosseiny, the national director of research and public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), said we need to consider the effects — often longterm — that trauma and racism can play in a newcomer’s mental health state.

“Many of the people who flee their home country have seen war, violence, or even torture. They may have come from impoverished backgrounds, or faced persecution or discrimination in their country — that has a huge effect on mental health,” Hosseiny told HuffPost Canada.

He added that many also lose family members or loved ones during the migration experience.

“Even long after the danger has passed, these frightening events leave signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that can last for years,” he said.

Some of the symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, or difficulty sleeping, said Hosseiny, adding that these symptoms can be exacerbated by isolation, stressing that it’s important for people to share their experiences and stories with family members, others in the community, or with a therapist.

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