The healthy immigrant effect, where new immigrants are healthier than native-born Canadians, also appears to exist in the mental health of immigrant children, show preliminary findings of a study out of McMaster University.

Kathy Georgiades, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences, presented the findings at a youth mental health conference at city hall on Tuesday.

Warning signs of mental health problems in children and youth

  • anxiety or fear that doesn't go away
  • frequent crying and weepiness
  • loss of interest in activities
  • difficulty concentrating and loss of energy

Source: Hamilton Public Health Services

The Hamilton Youth Study includes 1,300 students in Grades 5 to 8 from 36 schools in Hamilton. To date, only data from 950 students has been compiled.

Students were divided into three groups including immigrants who had moved here less than five years ago, second-generation immigrants and Canadian-born students born to Canadian-born families.

Looked at immigrant and native-born families

Georgiades said they also included a high number of refugees and english as a second language (ESL) students. Almost half of participants spoke a language other than English. The study is the first of its kind in Canada in that they chose schools with varying levels of immigrant students and also interviewed the student's parents, she said.

The study's goal was to find out if immigrant youth are at higher risk to mental health problems. While they found that ESL students and refugee youth were at higher risk to developing emotional problems, immigrant students overall showed lower levels of mental health problems than Canadian-born youth.

She hopes the findings help understand what might be contributing to higher levels of resilience among immigrant youth.

"We know they're living in difficult economic circumstances, but despite those economic circumstances, we're seeing lower levels of behavioural problems," said Georgiades in an interview after the conference.

"They're doing better despite living in greater levels of poverty and economic stress."

Where to call for help

COAST (Crisis Outreach and Support Team) — 905-972-8338

Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (family support) — 905-777-9921

Alternatives for Youth (substance abuse issues) — 905-527-4469

Canadian Mental Health Association — 905-521-0090

Parenting habits protect kids

Georgiades believes family cohesion, different parenting strategies, higher parental expectations plus greater supervision and monitoring of youth among immigrant families may be contributing factors.

"All of these factors are probably protecting these students."

Georgiades's team wants to know more about how these families are protecting children and how researchers can use the knowledge to develop programs for all children.

Despite the fact that around half of new immigrants end up living in poverty when they first arrive, she said, many are able to pull themselves out.

"These are families who are in transition, who have come to a new country but they've come with a lot of strengths," said Georgiades.

Higher level of refugees in Hamilton

Back in their country of origin, many had a high economic status. Then they moved to Hamilton neighbourhoods that were more economically challenged.

"But research shows they quickly moved out of those areas. They're an upwardly mobile population."

Accessing services, however, was a problem experienced by the majority of students in the study. Only 40 per cent say they could find the help they needed. The study began in October 2010 and will be completed this year.

Georgiades said it is an important study for Hamilton because immigrant children under the age of 15 represent 22 per cent of the school-age population in this city. Hamilton also has a higher level of refugees than most cities; 20 per cent of foreign-born children living in Hamilton arrived as refugees compared to the national average of around 11 per cent.

The conference was organized by a youth-led council through The Mental Health Commission of Canada and was held on National Child and Youth Mental Health Day.