Mental health of refugees in Canada calls for urgent attention

Posted on Thursday, August 26, 2021

Author: Prof. Rukhsana Ahmed and Victoria Strachan

Faculty Affiliate, ISSP, uOttawa
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, University at Albany, State University of New York

Student, University of Ottawa health sciences program

Originally published by The Hill Times on August 11, 2021

To various extents, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the deterioration of the mental health of many people in Canada. However, certain groups have incurred more damage than others. Among them, refugees new to or in Canada have faced unique challenges during this time, according to existing research. Although certain resources exist to address the mental health needs of refugees, they face many barriers in accessing those services.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, an abundance of health promotion and disease prevention messaging has been propagated in the media in an effort to support individuals in their efforts to maintain mental health during a period of extreme strain. The news media play an important role in shaping the success or failure of these initiatives. 

The representations of refugee mental health in the Canadian news media speak to the urgent mental health problems of this population within the country. Intracommunal and familial stigma, lack of awareness, and the COVID-19 pandemic function as critical barriers to refugees gaining access to mental health services offered. The mental well-being of refugee populations appears to be deteriorating despite efforts to support this population group. The multidimensional inequalities already facing refugees prior to the pandemic have only been exacerbated. 

Fewer services are distinctively tailored to refugees, and those that are available, are often not widely broadcasted. Thus, many refugees are not aware of the services in their communities that exist to support them, reported an article in The Beacon Herald. Furthermore, those services typically available to refugees have been greatly reduced during the pandemic due to the additional accessibility issues that accompanied social-distancing mandates, further reported an article in The Ottawa Citizen

Isolation and inability to access mental health services has caused an increase in mental disorders among refugees, as reported in The Hamilton Spectator. As a result of the pandemic, additional barriers such as lack of internet or computer access made it difficult for some refugees to make use of or become aware of the resources offered to them. 

Refugees also appear to be more concerned than the non-refugee populations about maintaining social ties and connections within communities. For example, a Statistics Canada report found that 53 per cent of refugees compared to 37 per cent of Canadian-born individuals were concerned about social risks. 

Throughout the pandemic, refugees have largely filled frontline and health-care support worker positions due to the necessity to support themselves and inability to access government resources. For example, as many as 20 to 30 per cent of refugees in certain communities have been working as personal support workers during the pandemic, reported the Ottawa Citizen article. The long hours and stress incurred in these types of positions during a pandemic also served to further negatively impact their mental health, reported an article in the Toronto Star.

The article in The Beacon Herald indicates that many newcomers to Canada require mental health support but avoid taking advantage of the mental health services out of fear of familial and intracommunal discrimination and judgement. Additionally, refugees need not only culturally appropriate services, but also support specific to the types of mental health illnesses they experience prior to coming to Canada, as underscored in a Winnipeg Free Press article. 

Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic has functioned to exacerbate and emphasize the prevalence of mental health problems in refugee populations within Canada. Barriers to accessing available mental health services and the lack of culturally appropriate and tailored services impede on the ability of refugees to ameliorate the state of their mental health. According to an article in The Conversation, vulnerable groups within refugee populations, such as women and children, sustained even greater strife.

Refugees in Canada were already facing inequalities in regard to mental health care, and the pandemic merely functioned to bring those issues to the forefront. In order to compensate for the additional harm that refugees’ mental health has incurred throughout the pandemic, additional investment into services and programs in targeted areas is required and will likely go a long way in counterbalancing the negative effects of the pandemic and improving upon the barriers that existed before it. 

This blog is an outcome of a research project made possible by the University of Ottawa’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), completed earlier this year.

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