Mental Health Determinants for Immigrant and Refugee Youth

We have produced rich evidence on social determinants of mental health and wellbeing for immigrant and refugee youth through two key community-based research projects.

Our Research Goals and Methods
On average 35,000 to 40,000 immigrant and refugee youth between the ages of 15 to 24 settle in Canada every year; this represents roughly 15% of the total permanent residents that come to Canada annually. Evidence from Census Canada and other research projects shows that immigrant and refugee youth (particularly those from racialized backgrounds) face disproportionately higher rates of unemployment and poverty compared to other groups. There is small but growing body of evidence on how pre-migration determinants (e.g. forced migration faced by refugee youth) and post-migration determinants affect the mental health and wellbeing of immigrant and refugee youth.

Starting in 2008, Access Alliance conducted two major community-based research projects to help build knowledge about social determinants of mental health for immigrant and refugee youth. The first project called Newcomer Youth Mental Health focused on newly arrived youth from Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan and from the Tamil community. The project utilized a mixed-method framework that combined focus groups and interviews with youth (14 to 18 years of age) and a questionnaire, which included three psychometric instruments (the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSE), selected scales from the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) instrument and the Current Self-Esteem Scale (CSE).

Building on this, we conducted a second project called Refugee Youth Health Project, which focused specifically on pre and post-migration determinants for youth (16 to 24) with forced migration experience and/or who came to Canada as refugees. This project used qualitative and arts-based methods (digital storytelling and drawing) to examine how social determinants like educational aspirations/barriers, changes in family roles and responsibilities, discrimination, and other stressors of displacement and resettlement impacted mental health and wellbeing for refugee youth and their families.

Our Project Team(s)
The Newcomer Youth Mental Health project was an academic-community partnership between Dr Nazilla Khanlou (York University) and Access Alliance (Dr Yogendra Shakya). Dr Carles Muntaner (CAMH) also served as co-investigator. Tahira Gonsalves was the coordinator for the project and Michelle Lee provided support as Research Assistant. Wajma Soroor, Jalajah Jokarasa and Lorenzo Vargas were engaged as youth peer researchers for the project.

The Refugee Youth Health Project was a project led by Access Alliance in close partnership with Dr Michaela Hynie (York University) and Dr Sepali Guruge (Ryerson University). Rabia Murtaza and Megan Spasevski worked as coordinator for this project. Peer researchers engaged in this project include Sheila Htoo, Azza Khogali, Arzo Akbari, Mohamed Malik, Stella Abiyo Mona, Wajma Soroor, Feroz Khairandesh, Joseph Manyeng, KaPru SoDoh, Mujtaba Ilmi, Pwee Tha, Salma Marzi, Tha Dah Hser. This project.

What We Found
In both studies, we found that immigrant and refugee youth come to Canada with high hopes for a life of prosperity, security and good health. They also come with high educational aspirations. However, these hopes and aspirations are undermined by multiple and compounding barriers that they and their families face including:

  1.  information barriers;
  2. non-recognition of their international educational credentials (for youth and their parents and inaccurate academic placement (usually in ‘applied’ streams); 
  3. linguistic barriers;
  4. economic barriers; and
  5. discrimination.

We also found that newcomer youth (particularly refugee youth whose parents have a low level of education) play a vital role as ‘resettlement champions’ for their families, including helping with navigating services, interpretation, family sponsorship, mentoring siblings, providing emotional support, and in some cases, becoming key breadwinners. While these roles can be empowering, they can also compound the stress and vulnerabilities that immigrant/refugee youth face with tenuous impacts on their mental wellbeing, particularly on self-esteem and capacity for self-care.

Results from both studies also show that immigrant and refugee youth are unfamiliar with mental healthcare services, and face stigma and other social barriers in talking about mental health issues and in accessing mental healthcare. Study findings point to the need for making mental healthcare more youth friendly and newcomer friendly (including helping to overcome stigma). Results also highlight the need to mobilize cross-sector actions to address the social/root determinants of mental health stressors, including economic marginalization, discrimination, language barrier, and social isolation/exclusion that newcomer youth and their families face.

You can read more about our study findings in these publications:

Our Funder
The Newcomer Youth Mental Health project was funded by Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health at CHEO. The Refugee Youth Health Project was funded by Laidlaw Foundation and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (currently IRCC)

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