Wellness tools and resources to boost mental health are available to help immigrants thrive
Anxiety and stress can be overwhelming for those looking to build a new life in Canada. Settlement programs along with wellness tools and resources to boost mental health are available to support immigrants reach their potential and thrive in their new home.
Thirty-five-year old Sharmistha Manna’s enthusiasm is both unexpected and infectious. The Indian-born immigrant has been pounding the pavement for a job and it hasn’t been easy. The interviews haven’t been great, and she misses her family in Kolkata, India, but she’s keeping her chin up. “It has to happen, right?” she asks rhetorically. “I wouldn’t be offered Canadian immigration if the government didn’t think I was worthy enough,” she says.
Setting up one’s life in Canada from scratch can be daunting and affects each individual differently. Like Manna, the biggest concern for new immigrants is being unemployed or underemployed. Factor in culture shock, the winter months, language barriers and the absence of familial and social support – and you have an individual who can very well be looking at a nervous breakdown.
A 2016 study conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada mentions that immigrants when they first arrive, are generally in better mental health than the Canadian-born population. Known as the “healthy immigrant effect,” this condition slowly dwindles over time for lack of linguistically and culturally appropriate support services, social isolation and fear of stigma from having a so-called “mental health problem.”
The good news is that there are a whole range of mental health wellness and settlement programs available to offer support for new immigrants.
Like Manna, one of the main challenges that new immigrants face that causes stress and anxiety is, finding appropriate work. And like her, the first stop for many on arrival is to approach their local settlement agency for support. Manna learned about a number of settlement services for newcomers at the Brampton Multicultural Community Centre (BMC) and attended a job orientation session. This gave her the opportunity to network and get a sense of the Canadian job market.
Settlement agencies like BMC offer tons of support to new immigrants, ranging from employment services including networking events and job fairs, one-on-one sessions with career consultants and mentoring support. A comprehensive list of newcomer service providers is available on the Government of Canada website. According to recent reports, present-day newcomers are faring much better in comparison to their predecessors in terms of unemployment rate (which has decreased) and wages (which has increased). This is partly attributed to federal and provincial funding for newcomer programs which has increased to more than $1.5 billion over the past two decades.
Wellness programs Services extend much beyond employment services in these agencies. Many programs at BMC are focused on health and wellness. “We offer the Mind Your Health program, funded by the United United Way Greater Toronto, which provides culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate self-awareness programs to newcomer clients. The program aims to raise awareness, reduce stigma and promote mental health and well-being of individuals from the newcomer and immigrant community so they can enhance their ability to adapt to change, cope with challenges, engage in productive activities and contribute to their community,” says Salima Tejani, Acting Director, Programs and Services, BMC.
At the Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre, a social services agency based in Mississauga, counsellors are working overtime trying to address the needs of anxious immigrant parents struggling with disciplining their children in a new country with different concepts about parenting. According to Praveen Kalra, Settlement Programs Manager at the agency, “We have a team of 18 counsellors that speak over 21 languages who engage with our clients on issues that include stress related to job or housing search, family or relationship breakdowns, feelings of isolation and past or current traumatic experiences. We understand that a newcomer to Canada may experience overwhelming anxiety and stress due to a variety of reasons and we are here not only to support them but to also have them participate constructively and positively in society.” Settlement agencies often organise health and wellness fairs that provide access to wellness experts who can offer one-on-one consultations specific to an individual’s needs. In addition to the services provided by settlement agencies, there is a lot that newcomers can do to better their day-to-day mindset.
Digital resources at your fingertips
For the tech savvy immigrant of today, tons of online resources and apps can aid with mental health and wellness. Apps that track moods and encourage documenting your feelings to meditation and yoga are all the rage. “For a newcomer today, like any other person, their phone is everything,” says Ridhim Mehta, Mental Health Counsellor, BMC.
“I recommend two apps to my clients. One is Headspace, a guided meditation app that also teaches mindfulness techniques. Another one that’s popular and is getting us results is Daylio, a mood tracker app. It helps clients identify what triggers their moods. Journaling is one of those activities which if done dedicatedly, can produce great results.,” she adds.
Other apps that are free to download and are popular include Anxiety Reliever: Stress and Anxiety Relief (that teaches you how to breathe effectively), MindShift (helps you track specific anxiety symptoms and provides strategies to avoid triggers) and Stigma (connects to support groups and helps discuss strategies with people with similar experiences).
Practice healthy living
The struggle of settlement is a daily one and can be a long-drawn out process. How and what you eat, goes a long way in maintaining a robust body and a healthy immune system which in turn, affects one’s mental make-up directly. The 2019 Canada Food Guide is a great resource for those looking to practise healthy living. The guide not only educates about food portions and food groups but also has valuable information including food labels, nutritional values of particular foods and practising mindfulness while eating. “Healthy eating is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and helps prevent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers,” says Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, upon the release of the guide. Setting up a routine of regular exercise supplements the effects of a good diet. Joining running clubs, the apartment gym or setting aside some time in the day for a brisk walk around the neighbourhood vastly improves one’s state of mind. The goal is to thrive and not just survive.
Settling in Canada while battling the blues can be a daunting process but it need not be a lonely one. There are plenty of opportunities available to make that human connection. Often, reaching out to that long-lost high school friend or second cousin who are already in Canada can help newcomers find useful information and more importantly, feel less alone. Meetup groups or Facebook groups are a way to connect with people going through the same experience and/or with the same interests.
Participating in community events and finding volunteering opportunities are a great way to network and connect with a new community. Forming what can be referred to as ‘lowstakes relationships’ can also have a positive impact on wellbeing. Researchers have found that maintaining a network of acquaintances: for instance, fellow gym-goers, neighbours, employees at the local grocery stores, can contribute to a sense of connection to the community.
Experts agree that dealing with stress and anxiety is an ongoing issue that plagues immigrant families and that there is a considerable gap between the demand for services and supports available.“The funding hasn’t increased for mental health and wellness programs, it has remained consistent. Our counsellors are overwhelmed by the increasing demand for services.,” admits Kalra from the Dixie-Bloor Neighbourhood Centre. “The wait list for mental health is on the rise and resources are limited,” echoes Tejani at BMC.
Despite the need for more resources, most immigrants like Manna find a way.
Manna attributes her sunny disposition in the face of struggle to her disciplined routine. “I’ve always had a routine in India, where I had a flourishing career – get up early, get breakfast done and get ready for work. I follow that here as well. My day is pretty unpredictable. I could have a couple of interviews lined up, a few may fall through but something may come up last minute and when I have a proper routine, I can manage my day well. I can fit it a lot of appointments and get a lot done,” she says.
But Manna reminds herself that she made the choice. “I chose to come here so I don’t complain. And on the days that I feel especially blue, I walk into a Tim Horton’s… There are few things a French Vanilla latte can’t cure! Also, people here are really friendly – you smile at someone and they smile right back at you. That definitely helps.”
[With contributions from Ramya Ramanathan]