Youth and depression: The terrible mental toll on young refugees

April 16, 2017

By Rosemary Newton, Vancouver Sun |

At a program run out of Cougar Creek Elementary School in Surrey, kids are sitting in classrooms drawing expressions on pages printed with blank faces, creating their own interpretations of happy, sad, excited and angry.

One child, about seven years old, draws an angry face completely red; his depiction of a happy face is a big grin showing rows of teeth.

In a class down the hallway, another group of children is doing a calming breathing exercise led by one of their peers. It’s a daily form of meditation and mindfulness that they learned earlier in the week.

This child and youth empowerment program, run by DIVERSEcity Settlement Services, is for kids aged six to 12. Many of them are entering their second year as refugees in Canada and are experiencing trauma related to the stress of adapting to a new culture. Others have experienced or witnessed abuse.

Counsellors with the program try to teach the children skills they can use when they’re feeling sad, angry or scared, said Corina Caroll, DIVERSEcity’s manager of counselling services.

“And they can go, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t an emotion that’s taking over,’” she said.

Later, the children begin colouring flowers printed on the back of small canvas bags. The bags will be transformed into comfort kits that will include things like scented oils, lip balm, candies, bubbles and stress balls that can calm them or bring them back to reality if they’re feeling intense emotions.

While there are plenty of arts- and play-based activities, the larger goal is to offer counselling.

DIVERSEcity is unique among settlement services for its mental health programs and its team of registered clinical counsellors.

“The needs are so high,” said Caroll. “You’re almost hesitant to advertise what you do because the wait lists are so significant that you’re constantly managing the need.”

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