B.C. refugee mental health help funding drastically cut

The federal government cut almost of all of its funding for agencies that had been offering mental health services to thousands of traumatized refugees.

Full-time staff of 3 expected to meet mental health needs of 2,000 refugees arriving yearly in B.C.

The Immigration Services Society of B.C. divided a combined $616,000 per year in provincial and federal funding between itself and three organizations offering free refugee mental health services -- VAST, Family Services of Greater Vancouver and the Bridge Clinic. That funding is now $260,000, after the federal government reduced its contribution to $80,000.

Federal funding cuts that came into effect this month have substantially reduced British Columbia's free refugee mental health assistance program.

The program's annual budget has been slashed from $616,000 to $260,000, a reduction of just under 60 per cent.

Two of the four groups offering mental health counselling to refugees in the province have shut down their programs, and the number of full-time staff has been reduced from six to three.

Those three are now responsible for serving what the Immigration Services Society of B.C. estimates to be 2,000 refugees coming to B.C. each year — 800 of which have official status.

Dylan Mazur of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture calls the situation "a crisis in refugee mental health care."

In 2012, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney announced Canada would resume the management of federally-funded settlement programs in British Columbia.

The change forced the organizations to apply to Citizenship and Immigration Canada for their portion of federal funding. The applications for this year's funding were denied. 

Instead, the federal government gave the groups $80,000, to continue its commitment to help government-sponsored refugees who came to Canada from refugee camps overseas. That money combined with the B.C. government's funding gives the groups $260,000 for refugee mental health services this year.

Remi Lariviere, a spokesman for Citizen and Immigration Canada, says the reduction is because mental health services are part of provincial health care and social service programs, and are not eligible for federal funding.

'Strategic' investment not being made

Mauricio Osorto, 33, fled to Canada from Honduras after his mother was murdered.

"Some guys in organized crime — they tried to kidnap my mother but they couldn't, so they killed her," said Osorto. "I had some friends in the police, they said to me I would be the next target."

He says mental health services in B.C. were a huge help to him as he struggled to deal with his grief while also adjusting to life in a new country.

But Osorto says he fears the budget cuts will deprive many refugees grappling with culture shock and mental health problems of the help they need.

Chris Friesen of the Immigration Society Services of B.C. says investment in mental health is crucial because the faster refugees can settle in, the faster they can start contributing to the province.

"It's a strategic and critically-important investment in the future of future Canadians," he said.

With files from CBC News