Immigrants and Mental Health: The Issue

An estimated one in four Canadian seniors was born outside of Canada. However, most immigrated to Canada when they were children or young adults. In 1996, three out of five seniors born outside of Canada had arrived in Canada more than 35 years earlier. A small percentage of immigrants arriving in Canada each year are seniors (3% in 1997). While almost all seniors can speak one or both of Canada’s official languages, in 1996, 4% could speak neither. Among seniors, women are somewhat more likely than men to be unable to speak either English or French. In 1996, 5.2% of senior women, versus 3.5% of their male counterparts, were unable to converse in either official language.

New immigrants and refugees, are relatively vulnerable to mental health and substance use problems due to pre-migration trauma, economic and social disadvantages, isolation, racism, discrimination and cultural pressures. They are often under enormous stress as migration can mean breaking with family, friends, and established social networks. Some may have lived through armed conflict, and have experienced hunger, human rights violations or other traumatic experiences. Upon arrival, many face economic uncertainty, and may experience a sense of isolation and loss of home, career, and standing in society. (Excerpt from draft Towards Recovery and Well Being: A Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada, Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2009)

Although the level of knowledge about mental health and substance use associated problems varies both within and across ethnocultural groups, field studies among these groups found generally an inadequate knowledge of mental illness and the harmful effects of drugs. Evidence further shows that that members of ethnocultural communities have a much lower rate of participation in health promotion, prevention and treatment programs, and are less likely to receive needed care than the general population due to systemic and service barriers which include language and cultural factors, discrimination, stigmatizing attitudes and mistrust of mainstream service providers. (Excerpt from Culture Counts: Best Practices in Community Education in Mental Health and Addiction with Ethnoracial/Ethnocultural Communities, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2004)

Excerpt from Canada’s Aging Population prepared by Health Canada in collaboration with the Interdepartmental Committee on Aging and Seniors Issues.