On Tuesday evening the Canadian Institutes of Health Research hosted CIHR Café Scientifique IRSC at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto dealing with the topic Stranger in a strange land: How does immigration impact on mental health?
The discussion was moderated by Kwame McKenzie, MD, MRCPsych. McKenzie, a recent immigrant of two years is a professor at University of Toronto and University of Lancashire and a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. He started the evening off telling the audience the importance of work for newcomers when it comes to mental health.
"In countries that restrict newcomers from employment there is an increase of 100 per cent when it comes to mental health issues."
McKenzie has fared well in Canada but he pointed out that he already had a job lined up in his chosen field at the time of his arrival. Most newcomers do not have that privilege. With a lack of language skills, cultural differences and accreditation for past employment many newcomers face employment hurdles that can take years to overcome.
McKenzie introduced the night's experts in the field of mental health with immigrants; Laura Simich, PhD, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, Peter Smith, PhD, a scientist at the Institute for Work and Health and an Assistant Professor at University of Toronto and Martha Ocampo, RN and the manager for Education and Resources Across Boundaries Mental Health Centre in Toronto.
Before the experts began their presentations Glenn Thompson, Secretary to the Board of the Mental Health Commission of Canada spoke for a brief moment. While Thompson officially retired from public service in 1991 he is an active member of the Mental Health Commission, founded in 2007 by the Canadian government. The commission has a 10 year life frame with goals of helping the public and the mental health field build a level of solid communication.
Thompson began his life of public service within the correction system in 1960. At that time the Canadian system didn't work well for newcomers, Thompson told those in attendance, "now isn't much better."
Peter Smith, PhD spoke about the issues of work and the aspects of mental health surrounding work issues for Canada's newest members.
"Almost all new growth to the Canadian labour market will be from immigrants in the future."
Sadly that labour force is more likely to become disabled while working than other Canadian employees. Many of those who come to Canada do not settle quickly into the field they were in when they left their home country. Newcomers are more likely to work the night shift in a field lower than their education. They are more likely to work in physically demanding jobs, prone to accidents and injuries. The newcomer is also less likely to know that they are protected by the government from having to take on dangerous tasks. When a newcomer is injured on the job they often do not know of the measures in place to help them. They are more likely to return to work still suffering from an injury and doing more damage to themselves.
For these newcomers who have scored high enough in the current point system to immigrate to Canada the reality of a crappy job and poor language skills equals a risk to their mental health and self esteem.
Laura Simich, PhD continued the discussion of the serious mental health risks that newcomers can face in their new homeland.
"We in mental health have to deal with the issues in the general society that face newcomers. They do not bring health problems to Canada."
Simich's field focuses on the refugee newcomer as well as other immigrants to Canada. She started her presentation on the way others tend to view refugees. While many feel that the refugee is a leech on society the truth is that refugees are survivors.
"Refugees are survivors. They are some of the strongest people in this group of people."
For the refugee getting into Canada is an act of being forced to flee their home country for their very life. They are leaving traumatic events at times in order to be safe. They leave in a hurry, often without the time needed to gather the proper papers needed as proof of their prior work experience.
There is an emerging trend within the refugee community- the middle class.
One point to ponder when you think of refugees- Albert Einstein was a refugee. So is Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google. For many refugees the desire to give back to their new community is very strong.
"New Canadians think that they will have a better life in Canada. They often then face economic hardships. This can cause immigrants to have an overall poorer health."
Newcomers are 2.5 to 4 times more likely to experience mental health issues when their social-economic status is low, even if they are employed. The higher their education, the higher the rates of mental health issues. Consider that many immigrants not only have their own families in Canada to provide for but those who are still living in their homeland depending on them. The stress placed on these immigrants is great.
Many newcomers feel discrimination while they are searching for employment. Simich pointed out that the Tamil people often felt more discrimination in Canada than they did in Sri Lanka.
The final speaker of the evening was Martha Ocampo, RN. Ocampo pointed out that in Toronto one-third of the homeless are immigrants. Often these homeless are invisible, housed by others within their native culture.
Ocampo said that newcomers often deal with social discrimination, lack of a support system, peer pressure and status problems. Sixty percent of immigrants are poor. Forty percent earn less than their white counterparts. They face a lack of community outreach services and feel that they are being marginalized.
Following the presentations the audience commented on the findings and asked questions about the issue of mental health and immigration.
'We are viewed as being extremist if we support certain cultures."
"There is a tendency to try to skirt the issue." Peter Smith agreed, "It's been found that just the belief that one will not be hired because of their race increases anxiety."
Fifty-two per cent of Torontonians are immigrants. Many of those face issues that risk their mental health. One important issue that was discussed was the lack of information about employment issues prior to coming to Toronto. People come to Canada expecting to achieve their dreams and when the reality of employment problems come their self esteem suffers.
"I learned the word stress in Canada," stated one immigrant.
Stress and work issues appear to go hand in hand for Canadian immigrants.