Mental health program's success highlights need for services for new Canadians

A program to help immigrants in Calgary tackle mental health and addictions issues is well on the way to proving its success but needs funding to make sure it doesn’t meet the same fate as others in Canada.

Program now needs new funding to secure its future

Rekha Gadhia with Calgary Women’s Immigrant Association says immigrants are more likely to hide their mental health problems and often don’t treat them as a priority while adjusting to life in a new country. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

A program that helps immigrants in Calgary tackle mental health and addictions issues is well on the way to proving its success but needs to secure more funding to make sure it doesn't meet the same fate as others in Canada.

Calgary Immigrant Women's Association (CIWA) started the program in January thanks to a $114,000, one-year grant from the City of Calgary. It's already nearly met its annual client target.

Organizers say that success highlights the need for more mental health services specially tailored for immigrants and refugees.

For many newcomers, day-to-day concerns around a long list of integration challenges like employment, housing and learning a new language are the priority. Many ignore their mental health.

"Imagine immigrant families coming to a different country. Their whole life is changing, and then they find their qualifications aren't recognized and face a lot of other challenges. The primary focus for many is food and employment," said Rekha Gadhia, a manager at CIWA.

It's very much in the immigrant families and even different ethnic groups we see different levels of stigma.- Rekha Gadhia, CIWA

"Integration, immigration itself is very stressful and it leads to a lot of mental health issues and this leads to addictions," she said, adding alcohol and gambling are two big issues.

CIWA's mental health and addictions program provides individual and group counselling in dozens of languages and with a focus on cultural understanding and sensitivity, focused on removing stigma and providing solutions.

"It's very much in the immigrant families and even different ethnic groups we see different levels of stigma. They think mental health means serious mental issues and it's considered taboo," said Gadhia.

She says their program is trying to normalize seeking help when individuals or families need it. 

"We hope to continue this project and will make all possible efforts to continue. There's a high need and that's what led us to apply for funding," said Gadhia. The funding came from $19 million dollars the City of Calgary allocated for mental health.

Gadhia says many immigrants don't feel comfortable with mainstream programs and may avoid them altogether, which makes other options and programs like hers even more important.

"It's really safe, it's really supportive, it's in your first language, it's culturally sensitive and everything is confidential. We see the impact of these issues on the entire family so we focus on families," said Gadhia.

Counsellor Vandana Sharma works with immigrants in northeast Calgary. She says immigrants have many barriers to accessing mental health and addictions counselling and treatment. (Dan Mcgarvey/CBC)

CIWA counsellor Vandana Sharma says mental health and addictions are also an issue for settled immigrants who have been in Calgary for five or even 10 years.

"Most of the clients still have the stigma, they don't want to come, but we're giving them confidentiality and supportive counselling and then they really want to talk," Sharma said.

Sharma says she can refer people to many different departments that can help with different problems as well as other organizations, including Alberta Health Services. And referrals come the other way too, from a range of organizations and agencies. 

She says awareness of the program is spreading in the city's northeast, where she works, by word of mouth and in tight-knit communities as people who sought help and overcame the stigma around mental health themselves recommend it to others, bringing more clients to her sessions.

Sharma says men are more likely to struggle when it comes to seeking help.

"They say 'we don't need it' but then after two or three sessions they realize they had to come," she said.

Culturally adapted therapy more effective: study

A 2016 study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada titled The Case for Diversity called for greater investment in programs and treatments, like this one, that are adapted for culture and language and tailored to trauma and migration stress.

The project reviewed 408 studies involving 41,920 people, offering "significant evidence" that culturally adapted therapies are more effective than programs targeting culturally mixed groups.

But since then some of those same programs have been discontinued due to a lack of funding, regardless of their success.

"Finding help that's culturally and linguistically appropriate can be challenging," said Ed Mantler, vice-president of programs and priorities with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

"Speaking about mental health issues can be challenging can be difficult for any of us, to describe what's happening to us, trying to do that in a second language can be even more difficult," said Mantler.

Mantler says there were only 50 programs operating at the time of the report in 2016. He doesn't have numbers but says he knows that number has dropped instead of increased. 

"Over 20 per cent of people in Canada were born outside of the country so this has to be an issue that needs to be considered," said Mantler.


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, only using an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: or tweet him @DanMcGarvey