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Arrival to Adjustment: The Mental Health Journey of Canadian Immigrants

The Canadian Mental Health Association recognized May as Mental Health Awareness Month in 1951, encouraging Canadians to engage in open dialogue about mental health issues and seek treatment if necessary.


As outlined by United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being, good mental health and well-being should be a right for all. Yet, a third of Canadians aged 15 or more who report needing mental healthcare say their needs are not fully met. This is particularly true for recent immigrants to Canada. A longitudinal survey published in 2012 found that 29 per cent of immigrants reported emotional problems and 16 per cent reported high levels of stress. More recently, Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) found that newcomers suffer more from (self-rated) anxiety and depression than non-newcomers. 










Source: MHRC


The process of immigration and resettlement is inherently stressful. Immigrants’ mental and emotional well-being is of particular concern, primarily when the migration journey is combined with additional risk factors like violence, war, displacement or persecution. This can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders.


For other groups of immigrants, studies have shown that upon arriving in Canada, their mental health appears to be better than that of the Canadian-born population. However, this decreases as immigrants spent more time in Canada. The decline in their mental health is predominantly attributed to resettlement challenges such as unemployment, family separation, discrimination, language barriers and a lack of social support.


Understanding the root cause of one’s mental illness is crucial because one-size-fits-all approaches to mental healthcare are not effective. In the case of migrants who later suffer from mental health issues, the root issue is based on the situational challenges associated with resettlement. Thus, solutions should be focused primarily on providing opportunities to aid their transition process, e.g., increased employment opportunities.


Immigrants that do require mental healthcare services are often unable to afford private mental health services. They turn, instead, to public resources, which themselves can be difficult to access despite the various services that appear to exist.


There is currently a heavy reliance (80 per cent) on family physicians for meeting Canadians’ mental health needs. Unfortunately, just 23 per cent of these physicians feel prepared to serve mental health problems.


The beginning of the process is familiar to many Canadians—a referral from a family physician. Therein lies the first hurdle. According to the Ontario College of Family Physicians, 2.3 million Ontarians do not have a family doctor, while others remain on waitlists for as long as a year.


Walk-in clinics are a different, but equally unnerving story as they lack patients’ medical histories and cannot make quick referrals.


Thus, newcomers seeking mental healthcare will already have to wait before being referred to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Once a doctor does make a referral, patients can expect to wait an additional six months to a year, as many mental healthcare services are limited and overbooked. Wait times between subsequent appointments can also be long, making it difficult to address patient issues in the present. This arduous process can be daunting, especially for immigrants unfamiliar with Canada’s healthcare system.


There are evidence-based initiatives designed to improve mental healthcare outcomes and services, e.g., psychotherapy, community-based service delivery and online mental health initiatives. However, many are not fully integrated into the healthcare system, making them difficult to seek out.


The mental health of recent immigrants may have severe consequences for Canada’s future. With the country’s foreign-born population growing four times faster than the Canadian-born population, the state will need to pay attention to growing mental health concerns.


Canada’s annual economic cost of mental illness is estimated to be over $50 billion per year. This includes the cost of healthcare, lost productivity and decreases in health-related quality of life.


Addressing mental health challenges is not just about individual well-being. It is about ensuring the overall health and prosperity of Canadian society. Canada can foster a more inclusive and resilient society, ultimately benefiting individuals and the nation as a whole, by prioritizing immigrants’ mental health needs.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha

Illustration by The People Speak! (image)


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