Sara Peñaranda, originally from Colombia, is experiencing a Canadian winter for the first time after arriving in Toronto last May with her husband. While she’s grateful to be in a place where she can follow her dreams, she says at the beginning of December she started suffering from anxiety and depression.
“I didn’t understand why I was here. I didn’t want to work or study,” Peñaranda told New Canadian Media in Spanish. “I felt that my parents were getting old, and I didn’t have any more memories with them. I just cried; I isolated myself. I had to ask for help.”
She says not being able to practice her customs and traditions, as she did back home, made matters worse.
“I have felt I had to uproot myself from my homeland. Most of us love our homeland but migrate because in our countries there are no opportunities or good quality of life, and that increases the feeling of sadness,” Peñaranda says.
A common feeling
Margaret Eaton, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), confirms it’s common for immigrants to experience a decline in their mental health when they arrive in Canada.
“When immigrants come to the country, they have good mental health, in some cases better than the average Canadian,” she says. “But when we check in a year later, their mental health has dropped. Being an immigrant has a big impact on mental health.”
Dayana Romero is a registered psychotherapist and owner and partner at RD Psychotherapy, a Hamilton-based full-service clinic, as stated on its website. Romero says depression can be more common among immigrants due to the “the severe changes that occur in their everyday environment.”
“Many lose friends, family, careers and homes when they migrate over. That change for many is very unexpected and hard to deal with and can be exasperated further” with a lack of coping skills, she says.
On top of that, immigrants, and people in general, are affected biologically during winter, according to Romero, as the lack of sunlight and the consequent decrease of vitamin D leads to people feeling more tired, particularly those from warmer climates.
Immigrants are also mentally affected by the cold and the fact that, at the height of winter, it can start getting dark around 4 p.m.
“Lack of sunlight, vitamin D, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a branch of depression, is common due to the darkness in the winter,” Romero says, adding that it’s usually “during the fall and winter that the phones start to ring a bit more.”
According to Eaton, this January CMHA Toronto had “the most calls it had ever received,” as the traditional “winter blues” was exacerbated by the pandemic and the Omicron variant.
As the government plans to bring in more than 1.3 million newcomers over the next three years to help deal with labour shortages, it is important to consider not only the various social factors that will affect their mental health, but also the often dreaded experience of a first Canadian winter.
Social determinants of mental health
In 2019, a report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that social determinants — the circumstances in which people live, work, and grow — “can increase or decrease a person’s risk of developing a mental health problem or illness and can limit access to timely and appropriate mental health care.”
Immigrant, refugee, ethnocultural and racialized populations in Canada “are more exposed to the social determinants that are known to contribute to mental health problems and illnesses,” the report states.
Language, income, education and discrimination are some of the social factors that influence the mental health of migrants.
Authors cite research indicating that “when unemployment occurs soon after arrival, it greatly influences mental health and well-being. A second study concludes that high rates of neighbourhood unemployment take a psychological toll on first generation immigrants, more so than on non-immigrants living in the same neighbourhood.”
What’s more, precarious employment status is likely to be more of a burden for immigrant women.
The importance of seeking help
According to Romero, depression differs from sadness because “depression affects emotions, mental health and behaviours.”
Romero says that when people notice their moods and behaviour are changing, they should seek help immediately. She recommends talking to a doctor and seeing a psychotherapist or psychologist for psychotherapy.
People may also consider medication under the supervision of a professional “if psychotherapy has not been helpful,” Eaton says, and both patient and doctor would have to agree that “more help is needed.”
It is also a good option for immigrants to contact their local CMHA, which offers a crisis line and counseling and can connect them with a support group or program, including online, Eaton says.
In some cities, CMHA offers programs addressed to newcomers, including in the their native languages.
For example, Eaton explains that there is a program called BounceBack, meant to help people with mild and moderate anxiety or depression, which is free and available online in several different languages.
“It comes with some free coaching as well,” she says. “It is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which is the number one remedy for treating depression.”
If a local CMHA doesn’t have an appropriate program for someone seeking help, it will help them get in touch with one in their community.
“We’re kind of like a mental health centre. So you should be able to get support, even if CMHA can’t offer it,” Eaton states, adding that it doesn’t matter if the person doesn’t have a certain type of paperwork or is not a permanent resident — the services are open to everyone.
For some immigrants, there can be a lot of stigma around mental health, as people associate it with “some sort of defect or weakness,” Eaton says. “In Canada, we’re working hard to reduce that stigma about mental health, so that people feel more comfortable to talk about it and to reach out for help.”
She likes to call on the immigrant community to abandon the stigmas. She also recommends a lot of self-care and physical exercise.
“Moving physically has a great benefit for mental health,” she says.
Light at the end of the tunnel
For Peñaranda, help came from within a support group largely made up of immigrants and members of the Latin American community, most of whom “have felt the same thing.”
“So, they were able to understand me. They offered me company, affection and strategies to move forward,” she says.
While her journey as an immigrant has relatively just begun, Peñaranda says with the help she has received, she is now able to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“One never stops missing, and the distance never stops hurting,” she says.
“But what we must not allow is to let sadness flood our lives. As new immigrants, we have to struggle with this every day. In that struggle, we must keep in mind that there will always be solutions.”
Andrea Hernandez is a journalist and social communicator of Colombian origin currently based in Toronto, ON, and studying Contemporary Journalism at Centennial College. Her work has been published in El Tiempo (in Colombia) and Guia Magazine Toronto. She worked for four years at El Tiempo, one of the most traditional newspapers in Colombia, in the digital news area and opinion section. Her goals are to improve her writing skills in English, learn more about contemporary journalism and contribute her knowledge from her position as a migrant.