Newcomers and the Stigma of Mental Illness

Not quite the response I was expecting.A couple of years ago when I revealed to my father that I’ve struggled with depression for many years, he looked at me confused and asked why “I didn’t just get over it.”  Now, three things immediately came to my mind in rapid succession:

1)  Did my father really just say that?

2) Admittedly, he is a first-generation immigrant from a country that is only just beginning to understand mental illness in the broadest of senses.  Even here in North America, the word “depression” is being redefined as an illness and not a mood.

3) No seriously, did he really just say that? It’s not like he’s the model for mental stability!

Attitudes regarding mental illness have however slowly changed in the past few years since the conversation, but in many cultures, the stigma remains.  Depression, for example, is still seen as an emotion that you have control over and not a mental illness that has to be treated. Open and honest education within various communities especially newcomers is needed to challenge cultural bias about mental illness.

Mental illness among newcomers is woefully under-reported due to many factors. The actual number of those affected is much higher.  One of the barriers that people face in talking about mental illness is the stigma attached to it.

Recent reports on newcomers and mental illness also paint a very grim picture. A report published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) states that “about 29% of immigrants reported having emotional problems.” Now, 29% is a startling figure, if for no other reason than its sheer ambiguity. The report further states that evidence from the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada (LSIC) indicates that for immigrants, as time spent in Canada increases, health decreases.

On the other hand, a 2016 report of the Mental Health Commission of Canada says, “Mental health is everyone’s business. Canada’s mental health response should focus on wellness, paying special attention to the social determinants of health which build on the resilience of refugee groups. This has the added benefit of decreasing the number of people who develop mental health problems. The way groups are welcomed into a country; where they live; whether they can work; if they are considered residents; and their access to education, training, and initiatives fostering social inclusion (e.g. language classes and resettlement services) are fundamental factors in promoting mental health.”

It’s not all about the drugs

According to a CBC news article, “only 6.3 percent of refugees access treatment, compared to 9.6 percent of immigrants.”  Even after being seen by a primary care physician regarding mental health, not many newcomers get the treatment that they need.  There are a variety of treatment options that should be discussed with your doctor.

Immigrants and newcomers need to become their own advocates for their mental health.  Communication and education will help us overcome the stigma related to mental illness.

Gregory Bourne, Systems Support Associate, Toronto, Ontario, April 26, 2017

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