Breaking the silence: Normalizing therapy for recent immigrants
By Russul Sahib
Posted on May 24, 2021
For many people, seeking out therapy is one of the most essential steps in improving one’s mental health. However, many recent immigrants may not be aware of the tools, resources, and support available for their mental health. Additionally, for some newcomers, therapy is often not even seen as an option.
For several Canadians, therapy is an incredibly expensive resource that many are not able to afford. In 2015, an article published in The Globe and Mail stated that although prices vary across the country, therapy with a private psychologist can cost over $200 per session. This, coupled with language barriers and finding culturally sensitive professionals, may make therapy seem uninviting for many recent immigrants. Most importantly, seeking therapy is often stigmatized and viewed with shame or disapproval. This is not strictly a newcomer perspective. Time and time again, pursuing therapy is viewed as a last resort for individuals who cannot “control” their mental illness.
In reality, therapy can be a great tool for anyone looking to speak to somebody about their mental health, regardless of the severity of the issues they are dealing with. Yet, some newcomers may come from cultures where mental health is not openly discussed with others. For recent immigrants who are interested in seeking therapy but may feel stigmatized, it is important to open up the conversation to normalize therapy. The Newcomer has an article about taking care of your mental health for further reading on ths subject.
Gouri Mukerjea is a mental health counsellor with the newcomer health team at Sherbourne Health. The clinic offers a variety of different counselling options for newcomers including group therapy sessions, walk-in sessions, and on-call services. Mukerjea said in an email response that newcomers often face many barriers when it comes to accessing mental health therapy, from finding the appropriate therapist to long waiting times.
“Barriers at the system-level include shortage of culturally [sensitive] and language-specific therapists, lack of insurance coverage, difficulty in accessing family physicians who identify and recommend clients for therapy, shortage of linguistically accessible services and long waitlists for free services,” Mukerjea said.
Dyshni Sritharan, another mental health counsellor who works with Mukerjea, stressed the importance of culturally sensitive therapists in understanding and sympathizing with newcomers.
“Culturally sensitive therapists are important, as they are interested to know the culture of the client and how it shapes their beliefs and perceptions,” Sritharan said. “A newcomer can benefit from a culturally sensitive therapist by feeling heard, validated, and not having to ‘over-explain’ cultural nuances.”
Newcomers are more likely to open up to their therapist if they feel they are not being judged or facing assumptions about the mental health issues they are dealing with.
Many newcomers may also feel hesitant about seeking therapy because they are in “survival mode” upon arriving in a new country, Mukerjea explained. Oftentimes, recent immigrants are focused on ensuring their basic needs are met, which means that their mental health may not be a priority. Additionally, Mukerjea said some newcomers may also be unable to take time off work to seek this type of help.
However, Mukerjea explained that newcomers should pay attention to their mental health, as they are an at-risk population for dealing with mental health issues.
“They develop issues such as anxiety and depression related to the stresses, uncertainty, and harsh resettlement experiences that can occur within a brief period,” she said. “Refugees who have had severe exposure to violence often have higher rates of trauma-related disorders.”
Even though some newcomers have to deal with these mental health issues, stigma continues to play a huge role in preventing many from seeking help. Though mental health stigma is seen in every culture, countries with more limited mental health information and access are slower at removing associations of shame from, or destigmatizing, mental health support.
“The change is slower in cultures that have had no formal, or perhaps very limited, mental health services in their home countries. For example, in some countries where refugees come from, there can be just one psychiatrist for a population of 500,000,” Mukerjea said. “For newcomers to have moved from such cultures, it can be quite overwhelming.”
Due to this stigma, newcomer health organizations that offer culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health services play a very important role in helping to break down these common misconceptions about mental health support.
“We believe that open and honest education within various communities, especially newcomers, is needed in order to challenge cultural bias about mental illness,” Sritharan said. “By connecting with clients through psychoeducational workshops and counselling, we’re able to work on destigmatizing mental health and increase visibility of mental health.”
Similar to Sherbourne Health Clinic, other organizations in the Greater Toronto Area, such as Carizon Family and Community Services or Aurora Family Therapy Centre are also attempting to fill the cultural and linguistic gap for newcomers seeking mental health counselling.
Newcomers can also turn to information provided by The Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH) which has created a list of mental health services for newcomers to access, according to their specific needs.