By: Aparna Sanyal in Montreal, QC
We have yet to understand the impact of covert racism and misogyny on the mental health of Canadian citizens, particularly “ethnic” women. However eager they are to contribute to society, however skilled they may be, they face a unique combination of social isolation and career limitations that can trigger illness.
My personal story perhaps speaks to many women from ethnic backgrounds in Ontario and all over Canada. After all, mental illness accounts for about 10 per cent of the burden of disease in Ontario, yet receives just seven per cent of healthcare dollars. Relative to this burden, estimates show that it is underfunded by about $1.5 billion.
My journey to the depths of despair began somewhere around 2014, when after several years of untreated, chronic depression, I developed psychosis. I remember it as the “terror.” I lived alone, had no family in Canada (although I was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec) and had a precarious job as a freelance writer-editor. Somewhere along the way, I thought moving to Toronto might help, but that turned out to be a disaster as well.
The terror began when my editor at a national publication was promoted, and I could no longer expect regular work. The $250 dollars I received from them every month was significant. I made $500-600 a month in total, if I was lucky; I had looked for over a year for more secure and lucrative employment, to no avail.
But the terror I felt was, I realize, largely social. I feared marginalization more than I feared hunger. My former editor had been an encouraging man, one who made me feel valued as a writer. When I no longer had that monthly job, it was as though my only railing on a cliff fell away. I had already questioned my worth to myself, and the answer was now confirmed by the outside world. What value was there to me now? It was as though I had seized to exist.
After this, the terror came upon me, sudden and all-encompassing. Public Health Ontario estimates the disease burden of mental health at 1.5 times greater than that of all cancers put together and I was feeling every bit.
Finding a safe place
I lived in a sort of dormitory house near the University of Toronto, on Madison, a Victorian “bay-and-gable” mansion that had been cut into rickety, rented rooms. We did not have a personal letter box. Our letters were placed on a table near the entrance. I noticed my bank had not sent me the last monthly statement. I became certain my next-door neighbour, a young red-headed man who seemed to be in his room all the time, had stolen it. My problems began to proliferate. I could not find a toenail-clipper, and this only confirmed my suspicions about my neighbour; then I discovered I could not find an old sweater and a journal, and became convinced he had taken these too.
Around that time, I began to smell a strange odour. I thought it might be a noxious drug seeping from his room, but I could not identify it. At night I huddled under my comforter, hoping to protect my lungs from the fumes. As I heard my neighbour moving about restlessly at night, I imagined he was only waiting to do me harm. I also began to think I was being followed, by my neighbours or perhaps by the then-conservative government, whom I thought might have started tracking my strong political beliefs. I began to fret about being anywhere alone, especially in my room. I walked around the city and spent as much time in cafés and parks, as the homeless do. I was unable to sleep at night.
One night, convinced I was under imminent threat — for my neighbour seemed to have banged against my door— I fled the house and called the police. Little need be said about the fiasco that followed, except that one short, tired, blond sergeant shouted at me, and suggested to her two constables, one of Asian origin and one South Asian, that I might be drunk. (I did not drink.)
They had come up to the room with me, and had tried to stir up my neighbour, but he did not answer. At first, they listened to my story. After I told them about the possibility of my neighbour having made a wax key to break into my room, they lost patience. The sergeant threatened to have me charged. I still remember that she kept telling her colleagues, “After all, it’s not as though she works in an office!” My desk, laptop, books, and papers, which were before her, had no significance. I was illegitimate in her eyes because I did not work in an “office.”
The next morning I promptly moved into the Holiday Inn nearby. I called several women’s shelters around town. The sympathetic co-ordinators pointed out that their beds were full. The only one available was too far away, in another borough.
There was no one in the country of my birth for me to turn to. I had, over the previous years, alienated many people from my life. I had lost faith in the Montreal arts community I had worked in for eight years. I had developed an aversion to what I saw as its insular, largely white milieu, and sensed it could only abuse me. This sense, extreme as it was, was rooted in reality.
Overworked and under-paid
My depression had started a couple of years back, after I had left a debilitating job as an Editor and Executive Director of a well-known Montreal publication. The job, I think in retrospect, had been one often taken by women and minorities. It had been given an inflated title, but left one overworked and under-paid. The board of the organization that ran it was composed of local publishers, mainly old, male and white, who had created it as a para-governmental agency. With federal and provincial grants, they had created jobs that the government deemed necessary but refused to do itself or pay for adequately. I had made $18 an hour, a third of what I had made when working for the government a few years before. I had been paid for 30 hours a week, but worked 60.
For almost two years I had worked around the clock. My health had rapidly deteriorated. My employers had been unhelpful and unfriendly. They had rarely responded to my emails when I required information or a signature, and I often had to travel the city to find them. In spite of my difficulties, I had increased the budget and improved the magazine of the organization. Yet I had been invariably criticized by the board. I had begun to cry every night, and occasionally dreamt of suicide. My social skills had become jagged, unreliable. I had snapped at colleagues and clients. I had met a therapist, a European woman, to whom I did not mention my thoughts of suicide. She had suggested I quit my job. I had eventually fought with my board and resigned in a fit of anger, without first securing another job.
After this, I felt hopeless. Each time my mind turned to the people who shared my environment, my heart grew heavy. I could not help brooding on the daily racial slights I endured within an overwhelmingly white community: one well known director, introduced to me, turned away without speaking to me and asked the person introducing me whether I was her “bookkeeper”; that person was someone with whom I shared a large space, and who suggested to me, since I disliked using the air-conditioner in the summer, that my ethnicity made it easier for me to bear the heat. These “micro-aggressions” were little in themselves, but together, happening regularly, as I grew more depressed, they further intensified my sense of alienation.
I had enough money to isolate myself and devote myself to my own reading and writing. When the money began to run out, I made the huge leap to Toronto, where I could start afresh. It was a disastrous decision.
After two days in the Holiday Inn near the Madison house, feeling unsafe, I relocated to an International hostel in Kensington. My terror was so great now that I prepared to fly to Kolkata, India, where I had inherited a house, and would be surrounded by people familiar to me, of my own origin. One day, I spotted a red-headed panhandler near the hostel who looked eerily like my former next-door neighbour; seeing him triggered both my sense of alienation and intense fear of poverty. Inevitably, I felt the need to leave the hostel.
Identifying the Problem
I stayed, during these three weeks of terror, in five hotels. They cost me roughly $10,000 and I received no security from them; each successive place of sanctuary turned into a house of horror. I must have contacted the police five times, expressing my fears. I tried to tell many people about the “drugs” I could smell in my rooms — from policemen to maids to night-managers. But they smelt nothing and were puzzled that I could not specify what I smelt. Only one person told me I should see a doctor. A young, Asian constable in a police station I had run to one night, he said, “All I’m saying is that you should see your family doctor. Because if you are mentally ill, you will be the last person to know.”
I went to a hospital eventually, because I was so anxious I felt I could hardly breathe. The nurse suspected my illness, and asked if I saw things that others didn't see; I said no, for I smelt things others didn’t smell. The medics performed a brain CT on me. It was normal, and I was sent back to my hotel.
I was bitter. I felt I was being forced to flee the country of my birth, and somewhere in my pent-up mind I thought this was because I was a social threat. This happened to be somewhat true, but not in the way my sickness told me it was. Simply put, as a brown, thinking, writing woman, I was negligible in the society I had been born in. Its various attacks on my mind, from micro-aggression to economic hardship to isolation, caused my mental illness and my ejection from that society.
(*For those living in Ontario, the Mental Health Helpline is a free, confidential live service that is available 24/7 to provide callers with information about mental health services in this Province.)
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and journalist who has worked with the Globe and Mail, the Gazette, the Montreal Review of Books, and Rover. She has been an advocate of mental health awareness and is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in English at McGill University. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
As a child, it wasn’t unusual for Ann Y.K. Choi to be at work behind the counter of her family’s convenience store in Toronto. She and her two brothers were expected to help their parents when they finished school.
Choi’s teenage daughter, a third-generation Korean-Canadian, isn’t familiar with the ins-and-outs of running a variety store – no more stocking shelves with instant noodles, no more keeping a wary eye out for shoplifters.
But Choi says the children of immigrants shouldn’t be spared from learning about the sacrifices their parents made to ensure their children would not undergo the same hardships they endured.
It’s one of the reasons she wrote Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, a fictional, yet deeply personal, account of life in a downtown Toronto convenience store. Mary, the novel’s headstrong, yet conflicted, protagonist, is a composite of Choi and other young Korean women she knew whose stories had yet to be told to a wider audience.
Preserving Canadian history
Choi says she wasn’t ready to pen a memoir for her debut as a writer, but wanted her daughter and other young Canadians to be aware of the Korean-Canadian experience.
“Nobody has gone on to inherit the store, and if I [didn’t] write this story, this whole history would be lost,” says Choi. “This is a part of Canadian history.”
The Choi family moved to Toronto from South Korea in 1975. Choi’s parents worked miscellaneous jobs before saving enough money to buy a variety store on Queen Street West.
What distinguishes the immigrant experience of Koreans, says Choi, is that they had to bounce from neighbourhood to neighbourhood to compete in the convenience store market. Owning a mom-and-pop shop was unlike having a restaurant, which could exist alongside others on the same block.
“We were scattered all over Toronto. We got to experience and live in every pocket,” says Choi. “It gave us insight into Toronto on a bigger level . . . And in some ways, it helped us integrate.”
They led a somewhat “nomadic” life. Moving was dictated by the rising and falling fortunes of the family business.
Mixing family and business
The store demanded so much of the family that Choi says it was like their “baby.”
Looking after the store barely gave them time to unwind together. There were no family dinners and no socializing until after the convenience store closed at midnight.
“We were all very aware that we needed the baby to thrive because our success depended on it,” she says.
It was only when she became a mother herself that Choi says she fully appreciated the courage and nerve it took her mother to run a store that was always at risk of being robbed.
“It’s hard not to be resentful [growing up], but looking back, I realize she must have been so afraid, but she didn’t show it,” says Choi.
Taking on taboo topics
At a Toronto Public Library event organized as part of its eh List Author series, Choi recalls how she came to write the book, which explores the relationship between mother and daughter.
It took a little nudging from a former student back in 2007, says Choi, who works as a high-school guidance counsellor. She explains how he flipped the question about his ambitions back at her and persuaded her to fulfill her dreams.
“I told him I wanted to write a book, and he challenged me to do that,” she says.
For five years, she would write after her family went to bed at night. “It seemed safer to delve into the Korean psyche when it was quiet,” she says.
She took several writing courses, eventually graduating from the University of Toronto’s creative writing program in 2012. Her final project, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was presented before a literary panel and earned the attention of renowned editor Phyllis Bruce, who acquired the novel for Simon & Schuster.
What struck her editor, Choi explains, was that the book tackled themes of depression and anxiety from the perspective of a Korean-Canadian.
As universal as people’s struggles with mental health issues are, for Choi and other Korean women she interviewed, such anxieties were rooted in a deep resentment toward their mothers. They were seen as an “obstacle” to their desire to be Canadian.
Although aspects of Korean culture have become mainstream, literature still lags behind K-Pop and kimchi in popularity.
This is what partly led Wai, a Chinese-Canadian immigrant, to Choi’s library reading.
“I’m interested in literary diversity,” she says. “I’d like to hear about the Korean experience. Most of it is a universal theme, but it would be nice to hear different perspectives.”
Choi hopes her book will open up the space for other Korean writers who are reluctant to share their experiences.
“There’s a little bit of fear,” she says, adding there are things that Korean Canadians as a cultural group do not discuss.
“We’re very guarded about sharing pain. It’s one thing to share music, food, but stories are so intensely personal.”
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
A pilot study underscores mental health strain as the greatest burden temporary foreign workers carry, caused by the changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
In a study entitled “Interrogating the Impact of Recent Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to Temporary Foreign Workers in Alberta,” researchers at the University of Alberta found that high level of anxiety and poor mental health are evident in TFWs who are affected by the changes.
The study was released on March 18 by researchers from UoA, York University, University of Sydney, in collaboration with non-government organizations, reported the Inquirer.
It was disseminated to stakeholders including members of the provincial and parliament of Canada, settlement services and policy makers, researchers said.
Thirty-five TFWs living in rural and urban areas in Alberta participated in focus group discussions in August, September and November 2015.
The participants, mainly from the low-skilled category such as fast food and gas retail attendants, were from the Philippines, India, Nepal, Jamaica and Bangladesh.
The researchers used a critical qualitative approach in collecting data and NVivo 10 qualitative data analysis software to interpret data.
Uncertainty causes stress
Analysis of the focus group discussions indicates that many of the participants continuously suffer from anxiety and stress “due to the demands placed upon them by their work and immigration statuses.”
A worker said, “It is really stressful because you are thinking, what is going to happen tomorrow, what is going to happen the next day. You can’t make any decisions.”
The study notes that although TFWs admit their mental health was poor, the need to provide for their family and precarious migration status got in the way of addressing issues related to mental health.
“Temporary foreign workers seem to be interminably waiting – for applications to process while others expire – which leaves them in a constant state of anxiety,” the researchers note.
Many barriers to seeking help
The stigma in seeking help for mental health and emotional well-being prevents TFWs from accessing support services and is an uncommon practice in their cultures.
Integrating within their own communities is a way to cope, according to the participants.
A participant said, “My friend, he called me, like, last week it happened, he called me at midnight and he started crying..[he said], could you please come and visit me and…then I have to take a cab and go to his place, like, you know, have a good chat, make him feel comfortable.”
For some, simple lack of knowledge and having no time to access services are the main barriers.
Rapid changes, often without adequate warning to foreign workers, have become a key feature of the TFW program, the study states.
The changes that came into effect in 2014 under the TFW program made it tougher for employers to hire TFWs by being required a $1,000 fee, a progressive yearly reduction in TFWs staffing down to 10 per cent this year and a no permit policy for areas that have 6 per cent unemployment rate.
It notes that some 70,000 TFWs had expired contracts in April 2015 when the “4-in, 4-out” rule came into force. The measure forced some TFWs to leave Canada and others risked staying as undocumented.
Recommendations for future improvements
Based on its findings, the study makes some recommendations including recruiting a temporary foreign worker advocate in the province.
“This advocate must be able to develop relationships and trust with the most marginalized and vulnerable groups of temporary foreign workers,” it says.
The researchers are also proposing that a fund be funneled to a one-stop service provider for TFWs that would include legal support.
To aid in foreign workers’ stress and mental health, the study also supports open work permits for TFWs, which in turn would reduce cases of exploitation.
“The goal from the beginning was to conduct some form of participatory action research project to attend to the well-being of TFWs in Alberta [with] a focus to conduct a small study that will inform the development of a larger study,” says Bukola Salami, lead investigator and Assistant Professor of Nursing at UoA.
Salami observes that while a study was being conducted in 2015 on the health of TFWs, the sector was being battered by several changes in the TFW program including the 4-in, 4-out rule.
“I was quite disturbed by the challenges stakeholders indicated that TFWs were experiencing and the systemic injustices related to this population,” she says.
“They are often treated in the systems as objects or tools for labour in Canada without a broader consideration of their lives and the lives of their families. As some of the participants indicated, we have a multi-layered hierarchy in terms of rights in Canada,” she adds.
Salami cites a statement from one of the participants who said:
“When I came here, I heard about Canada. [In] Canada the human rights is good but what I feel when I come here, there is nothing. Canada is good country, but they have also human rights for people who are permanent residents, not for us.”
Funding is being sought for a follow-up study from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to begin research in June 2017, Salami reports.
“We hope to conduct some form of participatory action research project that will improve the well-being of TFWs and give them some basis of action to exercise their rights in Canada,” she adds.
UFCW Canada, which represents more than a quarter of a million Canadian workers has also mounted a campaign saying if migrant workers are good enough to work in Canada, they are good enough to stay.
Re-published in partnership with Asian Pacific Post.
Commentary by Rosanna Haroutounian in Quebec City
“I guess you have to be white to have a mental illness,” my mom said.
I looked up from my laptop to see a promo on CTV News Channel for Bell’s Let’s Talk day on January 27.
Indeed, there were no visible minorities in the newsreel – a representation that is far from the reality of Canada’s diversity, and the reality of mental illness.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) defines mental illness as “a wide range of disorders that affect mood, thinking and behaviour.” Depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictions are all examples of mental illnesses.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 20 per cent of Canadians will have a mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental illness affects all Canadians indirectly through family, friends or colleagues.
Genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors can interact to cause mental illnesses, meaning they can affect Canadians of all ages, backgrounds, and education and income levels. Like other health problems, early and effective diagnosis of mental illness is key to its treatment.
That’s why talking about mental health in a way that is open and accepting is so important – and why immigrants can be at higher risk of not being treated.
More education, accessible services are imperative
A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 2011 found that while rates of depression and other disorders were lower for new immigrants than the general population, they rose over time.
Language and cultural differences can create barriers to seeking help. Some immigrants distrust mental health services because they have never had experience with them in their country of origin and are not accustomed to speaking openly about mental health issues. Some languages do not even have words for the types of mental illnesses that are commonly diagnosed in the West.
A study by University of Toronto researcher Tahany Gadalla found “immigrants are less than half as likely to get professional help for depression compared to self-identified Canadians.” Gadalla said there are not enough programs geared towards educating people from different cultures about mental health issues.
Migration and resettlement can also create environmental stressors that contribute to mental health problems. Social and economic strain, social alienation, and discrimination are a few examples of these stressors. Refugees are at higher risk than the general population of developing specific psychiatric disorders as a result of exposure to war, violence, torture and forced migration.
Many of the Syrian refugees who are now arriving in Canada have experienced these types of traumas.
The CMAJ study states “immigrants and refugees are less likely than their Canadian-born counterparts to seek out or be referred to mental health services, even when they experience comparable levels of distress.”
This makes it imperative for Canada to prepare accessible services to support refugees as well as educate them about the importance of seeking help.
All Canadians must be a part of the conversation
CAMH provides resources in languages other than English, and put together a video for Let’s Talk Day that features a truer representation of the Canadians affected by mental illness than the Bell Let’s Talk promo I saw.
Across Boundaries is one of several mental health organizations that support people from ethno-racial communities in Toronto. It shows that there are discussions taking place within newcomer communities, but for some reason these aren’t portrayed in the broader national conversation.
I noticed that the Let’s Talk website features the profile of Rwanda native Michel Mpambara, though he appears more prominently in the French-language campaign, presumably because he is a resident of Quebec.
Each January since 2010, on Let’s Talk Day, five cents for every call and text message sent on Bell's network, as well as every Facebook share promoting the campaign, and every tweet using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, is pledged towards mental health initiatives in Canada.
This year’s campaign raised over $6 million, which will be donated to research programs and organizations through Bell’s Community Fund.
People in the CAMH video acknowledge that simply seeing the words “let’s talk” sends a powerful message about starting a discussion on mental illness.
Let’s Talk has the backing of six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, who acts as the campaign’s spokesperson, as well as comedian Mary Walsh, TV personality Howie Mandel, and singer Serena Ryder. As a social media campaign, it is especially relevant among youth, 10 to 20 per cent of whom are affected by mental illness.
But for a large portion of Canadians, star power and re-tweets will not change their perception that mental illness is a problem they cannot experience, talk about or seek help to treat.
We all need to take responsibility for our mental health – families, schools, employers, governments and media. Television, radio, newspapers, and now the Internet have the power to shape our perceptions of what is normal. A news agency has the added duty to represent the truth.
As one of Canada’s largest telecommunication companies, taking on the responsibility of leading a discussion about mental illness requires Bell to speak to all Canadians in order to make the most impact.
Rosanna Haroutounian is a freelance writer and the assignment editor at New Canadian Media. She studied journalism and political science at Carleton University and now splits her time between Quebec City and Peterborough, ON.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
When Syrian refugee children arrive in Canadian classrooms for the very first time, the anxiety they feel might be more than simply first-day-of-school jitters, say humanitarian relief workers and health-care providers.
Many may be experiencing the trauma of loss and displacement after months, if not years, of being out of school. Despite this stress, heading back to class is the best course to establishing a sense of normalcy, says Patricia Erb, CEO of Save the Children, a global humanitarian agency.
"The children have gone through incredible trauma. They've seen people die, their schools being bombed," says Erb. "Getting into a school is getting back to a normal life. That's what they beg for.”
The role of psychosocial programs
Ontario is expected to absorb about 4,000 of the 10,000 refugees expected to arrive by year's end. The federal government plans to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees across Canada by February 2016.
Nearly five years into the Syrian conflict, as many as 2.2 million children are living as refugees, with limited access to education and psychological support. In a recent report titled Childhood in the Shadow of War, Save the Children says that one in four Syrian refugee children are at risk of developing a mental health disorder.
Psychosocial programs, which can involve art or play therapy, have helped children make sense of what happened and build their resilience, says Erb.
And yet these initiatives often receive the least funding, as resources in host countries are stretched thin, says the report.
In tents reserved as safe spaces for children at refugee camps, Save the Children runs activities where the children are asked to draw or dramatize their experiences. Their sketches can provide a glimpse into their emotional state.
"In their drawings, there's blood, body parts that are separated," she says. "You see the war."
The impacts of trauma
While visiting a refugee camp in Jordan, Erb was struck by the behaviour of three- and four-year-olds. "They were coaxed to eat their snacks, but they just wanted to put it in their backpacks. They had that memory of not having enough food."
The stress of poverty — of seeing their parents unable to work, living in informal settlements — is cited in the report as being the primary source of their psychosocial distress. In some cases, children become prone to aggressive behaviour and substance abuse, the report finds.
Trauma manifests itself in different ways, and for children, their somatic (physical) symptoms are more pronounced than with adults, says Dr. Tony Barozzino, a pediatrician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
"The emotional, psychological symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are being experienced or seen as physical symptoms," he explains. "[There's] abdominal pain, chronic headaches, school refusal, which is an underlying sign of significant anxiety, [and] nightmares."
Depending on the severity of their distress, kids may be referred to psychiatrists for evaluation, counselling or medication therapy, he says. Barozzino's colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Morton Beiser, is piloting a program for refugees based on Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), which was developed in Germany 25 years ago to treat PTSD.
The program, Lending a Hand to Our Future, which will run in eight clinics in Toronto, is suited for children and youth, between the ages of seven and 15. It involves eight to 10 sessions, lasting about an hour, led by trained volunteers in the health-care field. NET is billed as a way for patients to recover their identity.
"They're literally walked through their migration story," he explains. "It helps them understand the situation, get rid of the internalized stress that comes from that. [. . .] It has a very good response rate and very few individuals require further treatment.”
Supporting children at school
What's crucial is for health-care providers, educators and social workers to look out for symptoms, so children who are suffering can be referred to appropriate services, says Barozzino.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is working to anticipate Syrian children’s needs by linking with community partners to outline programs to ease the transition. That includes tip sheets for teachers on class activities, advice on dealing with potential stressors and plans to hold lunch-and-learn sessions.
"You don't want the kids to feel like they have a broken wing," says Marcia Powers-Dunlop, interim senior manager of professional support services at TDSB. "So you want to have as many normalizing activities as possible."
Amid all the anticipation surrounding the children’s arrival, many Torontonian schoolchildren are eager to find ways to relate to their new classmates. Some wonder if they can bring toys to share. Others want to know if it's appropriate to ask about their experience.
"Some kids struggle to think that they're kids just like them," says Powers-Dunlop. "I say, 'They're boys and girls like you. They have the same fears, the same hopes, the same joys.’"
by Belen Febres in Vancouver
Immigrating to a new country can put a strain on a person’s mental health and well-being. Art therapy, one of the disciplines being recognized in November as part of arts and health month, can have positive benefits for newcomers’ mental health.
“Moving to another country can be an exciting experience, but it can also be nerve-racking or sad,” explains art therapist Debbie Anderson. “Art making can help people find the inner peace that they may have lost in the migration process.”
According to Arts Health Network Canada (AHNC), arts and health is an interdisciplinary field that embraces different forms of art to promote health, prevent diseases and enhance health service delivery. There are multiple arts and health initiatives available across Canada.
AHNC’s communications coordinator, Zara Contractor, mentions that the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as an individual's complete physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual well-being, and not only as the absence of disease.
“The arts can positively impact all these dimensions in different ways,” Contractor says.
Art as therapy
Contractor highlights the importance of making a distinction between expressive or creative arts therapies from other arts and health practices within the field.
Expressive art therapy focuses on art making as a therapeutic process, while other arts and health practices focus on engaging people in the arts for reasons such as enjoyment, education, distraction from illness, social connection and self-exploration.
Different materials and techniques, such as colouring, painting, collage, clay and weaving are used in expressive art therapy.
Moreover, expressive art therapies are regulated by professional associations and require a postgraduate or master’s degree.
Mehdi Naimi, president of the Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA), explains that only qualified art therapists graduated from programs regulated by specific standards can practise this profession in Canada.
Tzafi Weinberg, CATA’s advocacy chair, explains that emphasis is placed on safety, confidentiality and unconditional acceptance in a non-judgemental atmosphere throughout the whole therapeutic process.
She adds that the focus of the therapy is not the final product, but the creation process instead. For this reason, no previous experience in art is required.
“People may think that they are not artists, but everybody can use art as a means of expression,” says Jannika Nyberg, co-founder of ArtQuake, a grassroots organization that connects young people through the arts in Vancouver.
For this reason, Nyberg encourages everyone to try different artistic forms. “In this way, you may realize that you enjoy these activities and that they can be a positive outlet to deal with your emotions.”
Benefits for newcomers
The sessions in art therapy can be individual or in a group. While some people can feel more comfortable in individual sessions, group sessions can contribute to creating a sense of community and allowing interaction with people from different backgrounds.
“They also offer a space to find collective support, input and understanding,” explains Tanissa Martindale, a recent art therapy graduate and the registrar and practicum coordinator of the Winnipeg Holistic Expressive Arts Therapy Institute (WHEAT).
According to Anderson, group sessions can be particularly beneficial for newcomers because by sharing their stories, people discover that they have similar experiences as others, and share attributes of resilience and strength.
Newcomers can bring their own culture into the session through the use of symbols, materials, and images that are familiar to them.
Therapists do not interpret the artwork in this process. Instead, they guide the individuals to find its meaning.
“People are their own experts, they know what they need and all the answers are within them,” says Weinberg.
Hana Pinthus Rotchild, a registered social worker and art therapist working with different populations including immigrants and refugees, explains that this approach allows people to recreate the reality they left behind and process any grief or anxiety they may be experiencing.
Through different art projects, she has reflected on her own migration process from Israel to Canada in 2003.
“Art has allowed me to express my longing for my family and my country, and to explore my journey and my identity,” she shares. “It has also been an avenue to cope with my losses, separations, and transitions, while helping me to stay connected with my roots.”
Non-verbal methods of expression
People of all ages suffering from different conditions like depression, grief, anxiety, trauma and eating disorders can benefit from art therapy.
Anderson explains that this is possible because non-verbal methods can be effective in helping people express themselves.
By encouraging individuals to make art instead of talk about their own emotions and ideas, art therapy can provide gentle, healthy and positive communication outlets and coping mechanisms.
This can also break the language barrier that newcomers may face.
“In art therapy, people can express through their own visual voice without the need of words,” says Pinthus Rotchild.
Naimi explains that once people express what cannot be said through other mediums, they find relief, process their experiences, improve their self-esteem and envision the future they want for themselves.
“In this way, art therapy encourages therapeutic healing and creative problem solving,” he adds.
For Nyberg, art has also been a means for personal transformation.
“Art is the one place where I can get out of my mind and into my body to express and process my emotions,” she says. “If I didn’t have that outlet, I don’t know where all those emotions would have gone.”
Video By: Samantha Lui for New Canadian Media
by Leah Bjornson in Vancouver
Canadian party leaders have all pledged to resettle thousands (if not tens of thousands) of Syrian refugees over the next few years, but little has been said to address the fact that for many, the crisis doesn’t necessarily end upon reaching Canadian shores.
A new report commissioned by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) explains that even after refugees have escaped a crisis zone, they must deal with the damaging repercussions of having experienced war-related violence.
If they are able to find safety abroad, refugees still must confront the daily stressors of displacement, which include poverty, a lack of basic needs and services, ongoing risks of violence and exploitation, isolation and discrimination, loss of family and uncertainty about the future.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Syria in particular is suffering from a mental health crisis, with two million or more citizens experiencing mild to moderate mental health illnesses.
Titled “Culture, Context and the Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing of Syrians,” the UNHCR’s report’s aim is to make mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) staff aware of the cultural issues they might encounter when working with refugees so that they can better address this group’s specific and acute mental health needs.
“The idea really is to help practitioners equip them[selves] with the knowledge, but also the attitude that they need to have with a Syrian refugee,” explains Ghayda Hassan, one of the organizers of the report and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).
Hassan began working on this report two years ago when the UNHCR and the WHO were investigating how to better support mental health and psychosocial services practitioners following a crisis.
The organizations decided to commission professionals in the field to design a primer for MHPSS staff that would guide them through interventions while educating them of the present cultural context and any cultural issues they might face working with Syrian refugees.
The report begins by describing how the current conflict in Syria has caused “the largest refugee displacement crisis of our time.” Since March 2011, nearly half of the country’s population has been displaced and over 200,000 people have been killed.
Those who have survived have been witness to massacres, murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, as well as the use children in hostile situations.
Exposure to such devastating events has the potential to create extreme psychological and social distress among refugees.
Many are able to establish healthy coping mechanisms such as talking to friends and family, praying or remembering good times.
However, others might have had their social support systems destabilized during conflict, forcing them to develop less effective or negative coping strategies such as smoking, obsessively watching the news, worrying about others back in Syria or ‘doing nothing’, says the report.
When this lack of support is compounded with the trauma they’ve experienced in crisis zones, these individuals are especially at-risk of developing mental health issues or mental disorders.
Idioms of distress
The report intends to tackle this problem by helping “MHPSS professionals and humanitarian professionals become more sensitive – not to stereotype the Syrians, [but] to make them aware,” Hassan says.
One of the most important ways in which mental health practitioners can support refugees is by understanding and using cultural ‘idioms of distress’, which according to the report, “refer to common modes of expressing distress within a culture or community that may be used for a wide variety of problems, conditions or concerns.”
In order to help mental health practitioners communicate their diagnoses in ways refugees can understand, the report provides specific ways to express common expressions used in Western medical traditions. It also outlines common expressions used by Syrians.
For example, the phrase in Arabic that translates to “I feel my soul is going out” should be understood as an expression of worry, inability to cope, and a warning sign of a dysphoric mood.
A similar statement, which translates to “It is humiliating to complain to someone other than God” is a reference to shame in asking for help as well as a statement of despair and surrender.
By understanding the true intent behind these expressions, doctors can better understand exactly what a patient is experiencing.
Nevertheless, this issues go beyond simple vocabulary.
“Even when we talk about anxiety and depression, anxiety and depression and other disorders are not experienced in the same way [in different cultures],” Hassan explains. “So we kind of described for instance not only what words a depressed Syrian refugee patient may [use], but also what exactly depression means and how is it existentially experienced.”
Hassan says addressing these issues as complex cultural and emotional experiences rather than solely as diagnoses “really provides the ability for practitioners to be more aware and understand better the emotional and psychological experience of their patients.”
Intervention beyond Syria
While this report is specifically focused on a Syrian context, Hassan explains it has the potential to help mental health practitioners beyond the current refugee crisis.
“The advantage I think to this review is that we have included some advice or information on how to design a contextually appropriate service in terms of mental health and psychosocial support,” she says. “It can be used by any mental health psychosocial service in Canada who is hoping to improve the services that they provide to their population.”
Hassan says this could be especially important for Canada given its multiethnic population.
She ultimately hopes that this report is widely distributed so that both professionals and the public become more aware of the long-term health consequences of refugee situations and how they can get involved.
“Canada has to play [a role] in assisting refugees. And not only waiting here to assist them.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit