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They came to Canada for their dreams. Instead they found a mental health nightmare

Jacqueline Addo remembers the time two years ago when her husband Joshua confided to her that the stress of adjusting to life in Canada from Ghana was proving too much for him to bear.

He had reached a breaking point, and her own mental health wasn’t great.

“I was just a shadow of myself, basically,” she said.

Joshua was struggling to find a job in his field as a financial adviser, and had instead worked stints at a courier company and at Costco.

With Jacqueline looking after their children, they were unable to make ends meet on one salary and had to borrow money from family and friends every month to survive.

While Joshua has an administrative job with Nova Scotia Power today, and the couple is finally able to rest a little easier and plan for the future, not all immigrants fare as well.

The stresses caused by the upheaval of moving to a new country — and the often huge chasm between what immigrants are led to expect about life in Canada and the reality — can lead to depression, frustration and a loss of self-esteem, according to experts.

A study released in December by Mental Health Research Canada found that new Canadians are almost twice as likely to express concerns about feeding their families as people born in Canada. 

It said food insecurity and isolation from a family and friends support network have been tied to higher incidences of mental health challenges.

In 2022, more than 437,000 immigrants moved to Canada. A record 12,500 of those arrivals came to Nova Scotia, according to a survey commissioned by the province — and that figure could rise, with Ottawa hoping to attract 500,000 newcomers a year by 2026.

The stress of acculturation

Iqbal Chowdhury is a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University whose doctoral research focuses on the mental health condition of immigrants moving to Canada.

Chowdhury, who is from Bangladesh, said his research indicates immigrants tend to have better mental health than their Canadian-born counterparts.

Other research suggests people who successfully navigate Canada’s immigration system, particularly in the economic class, are healthier because they are well educated, slightly younger than average Canadians and must go through medical screening.

But over time, he said, the mental health of immigrants deteriorates until it matches that of the general population — a phenomenon described as the healthy immigrant effect, or the immigrant paradox. One of the potential causes, he said, is stress associated with the acculturation process.

A man smiles at the camera with a rocky shoreline in the background.
Iqbal Chowdhury is a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University doing doctoral research on the mental health condition of immigrants moving to Canada. (Ira Clarke)

Another is diminishing self-worth. As part of the immigration process, people are considered based on their training and employment history in their country of origin, and they have the expectation of getting a similar job in Canada, Chowdhury said.

But once they arrive, they often find it very hard to use their previous experience and educational credentials, he said.

“It actually affects their aspiration and affects their self-esteem, and I would say that it also prevents them from developing a social network with their community in Canada,” he said.

“When they cannot get a job in the labour market, they find it is really a kind of shame to share with people back home, as well as the community living in Canada.”

Chowdhury said mental health is one of the important determinants of social and economic development and progress. If Canada wants to build a productive future generation of immigrants, he said, it is important to study the problems faced by immigrants and take a close look at the resources that are available to improve their mental health.

Career setbacks

It can take immigrants years to work their way back up the career ladder, the Conference Board of Canada noted in a September report it prepared for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

“While the fairy tale of Canada as a land of opportunity still holds for many newcomers, this study points to burgeoning disillusionment,” institute CEO Daniel Bernhard said in the report.

“After giving Canada a try, growing numbers of immigrants are saying ‘no thanks,’ and moving on.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement that it offers preventive and non-clinical mental health support to newcomers through third-party settlement organizations.

It also partners with the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to help address the mental health needs of newcomers, the statement said.

Unable to find suitable jobs

According to the conference board report, nearly 15 per cent of immigrants left Canada within 15 years of obtaining permanent resident status. But for some who are now hoping to move elsewhere, the process of uprooting again is not a viable option, particularly if they are older.

Manmeet and Randeep Oberoi sold everything they had and moved from the Indian state of Punjab in 2018 with their two children.

The couple, who are in their 50s, have post-graduate degrees from Indian universities.

Manmeet was a principal at a teaching college and Randeep was a credit manager at a bank.

Manmeet got her Nova Scotia teaching certification and now works as a substitute teacher, but has been unable to find a permanent position.

An Indian man and woman smile at the camera. The man is wearing a pink pagri (turban).
Manmeet and Randeep Oberoi moved to Halifax from India in 2018. (Gagan Oberoi)

Despite taking several banking courses since arriving, Randeep said he is still jobless.

He said they expected it would take some time, maybe up to two years, to find permanent employment.

While the couple are now Canadian citizens, Randeep said he still has no idea how to make inroads in the job market.

Manmeet said the experience has been especially frustrating because she loves teaching and has a wealth of specialized skills.

Manifestations of stress

Carmen Celina Moncayo, a supervisor at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia and a psychologist by training, said the stress caused by the immigration experience can manifest itself in many ways.

“People can develop depression. People can develop anxiety. People can have sleeping problems, eating [problems], irritability,” she said.

“Mistrust of themselves, mistrust in the environment … all the ways that our body reflects stress.”

Moncayo, who is originally from Colombia, said her association teaches people that what they are experiencing is a completely normal reaction to the feeling of being uprooted.

After more than five years in Nova Scotia, Manmeet Oberoi wonders if the decision to move here was the right one.

“It is very, very stressful,” she said.

“Sometimes I don’t know how to survive here because, if we don’t have the jobs here, then why are so many people coming here?”


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