Thunder Bay

Newcomer support workers learn to offer mental health help

New immigrants and refugees in Thunder Bay may start receiving more support for mental health issues, after a workshop for those who provide settlement services to newcomers wrapped up Friday.

New immigrants and refugees in Thunder Bay may start receiving more support for mental health issues, after a workshop for those who provide settlement services to newcomers wrapped up Friday.

Workshop facilitator Maria Lo said newcomers go through so much when they come to Canada that they might not realize just how much stress they're under.

Maria Lo, training co-ordinator for the Hong Fook Mental Health Association in Thunder Bay, was one of the facilitators at a recent workshop for workers who help immigrants and refugees. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

“Many times, when they're new to a country, they have the new system to navigate, and also [a lot of] paper work, looking for [a] job, [and] trying to settle in new environment, they may not realize how much stress they have been put through,” she said.

“They may feel like they are getting sleepless nights ... but not necessarily realizing that they are having mental health issues."

Redefining ‘normal’

About 15 people took part in the workshop, which was held at the Italian Cultural Centre. It was presented by the Toronto-based Hong Fook Mental Health Association, an organization that addresses the mental health concerns of Ontario's east and southeast Asian communities.

Stephanie Gellman taught service providers how to address mental health issues in a culturally sensitive way. She noted different cultures have different definitions of "normal."

“Seeing visions is common in many cultures, but yet, in the typical North American white culture, seeing spirits and visions is considered to be a hallucination of sorts,” she said.

Gellman teaches how to watch for situations where people's jobs or social lives seem to be impacted by their symptoms.

Workshops like this are helpful both professionally and personally, said Leema Farha, a worker with the Thunder Bay Multicultural Association, and a newcomer to Canada herself.

“I do realize that the suffering that — not only me but others going through as an immigrant — is recognized and there are associations [that] are trying to do something about it,” she said.

“So this is a very positive point.”

Helping people feel confident

Farha said she'll use the training she received to empower her clients.

"My clients would be the students who come to learn the English language. I have seen students who are not young — above 30 years old — who really feel frustrated because [of] the language barrier … or the qualification that is required for the job,” she said.

“They probably have their own job experience or qualifications back home, but they come to know that they have to start fresh, so this is really frustrating for them.”

Farha said she could talk to her clients and “give them that confidence that you are able to do whatever you want and you have that ability.  And if I do see that really there is a psychological problem ... that person is really suffering from depression then I would really require extra help."

Lo said one of the goals of the workshop is also to combat stigma among the settlement workers themselves.

"We may have many, many hidden assumptions within ourselves, prejudice or bias within ourselves that we are not even aware [of],” she said.

“So through this kind of exchange, hopefully we will do more self-reflection and realize that we have to constantly reflect on our practice, [and] whether these assumptions, [or] these biases are playing a roll."

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