The immigrant population in northern York Region, South Simcoe and the surrounding area has been steadily increasing for several years, creating a larger need for cultural supports.
To address that growing demand, the Newcomers Health and Well-being program was created by the Canadian Mental Health Association York Region and South Simcoe (CMHA-YRSS) to meet the unique mental health and primary care needs of immigrants and refugees in the area.
Through the program, CMHA-YRSS will work with the settlement sector to provide culturally appropriate training, with the goal of reducing reliance on emergency departments, crisis services, and police.
“The big piece here that we want to stress is the program offers supports in a culturally appropriate manner, so I think helping other professionals out there understand and learn about the different ways mental health can manifest across cultures is key,” said Kylee Goldman, CMHA-YRSS Newcomers Wellbeing program manager.
"Across individuals, mental health looks very different and also across cultures, people express stress, anxiety and sadness in different ways."
The program helps educate the people who facilitate settlement services about what mental health issues might look like amongst newcomers.
Its goal is to move support services away from being reactive towards something that’s more proactive – aimed at early intervention instead of relying on emergency services when a person reaches their breaking point.
The Newcomers Health and Wellbeing program is offered throughout South Simcoe and in York Region, where 47 per cent of the population was born outside of Canada.
Incidents of mental distress, depression and anxiety are significantly higher for immigrants and particularly refugees who are often fleeing from conflict.
However, much of the time, those newcomers aren’t getting the care they need. Settlement agencies and other service providers generally lack culturally appropriate or trauma-informed care, but work to change that is now underway.
“People who pick up their lives from one country and move here to start a new life for themself, there's a lot of loss,” Goldman noted.
“The family would have been their main source of emotional support, so to not have them around can be really difficult to navigate the cultural differences and potential language barriers, as they try to meet new people and find out where they can fit into the community,” she continued.
“There’s a loss of culture and loss of language and communication, so I think that that is one of the main things I do see.”
Individuals who are migrating to Canada often have a lot in common and somewhat of a shared experience.
“A lot of people coming to a new place, everything in society is so very different, the way that people grocery shop, the types of food that people can buy."
"They can't find the items they normally cook with to nourish themselves, so, in so many aspects of people's lives... they experience the stress of being a newcomer in a place that is so different from their own home."
An important part of becoming more proactive with refugee and immigrant supports is making sure they are aware of the services available to them, Goldman explained.
“We want them to know where they can get support and be well, that there’s options available right now, so that if and when, later on they do decide they’re not doing well and need the support, they know where to go to access those supports,” she said.
The program is designed to give immigrants the tools they need when feeling overwhelmed, at a loss or alone, while building connections.
"Really, the idea of the program is to promote a sense of community and belonging for each and every person and to validate the experiences they are having,” Goldman explained.
“Hopefully we can give them a sense of hope, that they can create the life they are hoping for here, that things will feel more comfortable with time.”
Going forward, Goldman said the CMHA-YRSS anticipates government funding for the program over the next five years and hopes to see it grow from here.
“We are working as an organization to, as much as possible, establish a very well-rounded program and look at ways for future sustainability, so that the program can be maintained and can continue to evolve,” she noted.
“Looking at part of that can lead to expanse, partnerships, and relationships with other community organizations.”
"We're also looking at outreach to faith-based communities to community centres, so looking at broadening our partnerships with other community agencies to build the program and make sure that bridges are there to keep it going.”
—Sam Odrowski is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter with the New Tecumseth Times