Welcoming Syrian Refugees to Nova Scotia: Providing Psychological Assistance

With the recent influx of Syrian refugees to Nova Scotia, psychologists are poised to play an important part in helping refugees transition from the struggles they’ve experienced –from first-hand experiences of war to the challenges faced during migration and adjusting to living in Canada.

ISANS has been working for many years with refugees and immigrants who arrive in Nova Scotia, and they use a collaborative resiliency model. They have developed a series of settlement services and psychosocial programs addressing immigrant and refugee mental health and wellness. For the last three years, ISANS has been implementing the Newcomer Community Wellness Project funded by the Province of Nova Scotia. This project aims to further the goals of the Nova Scotia Mental Health Strategy by developing a model for the provision of equitable and culturally competent mental health services to immigrants and increasing the immigrant community’s capacity to respond to issues of mental health, wellness and addiction.

The project is in alignment with two of the five priorities established in the strategy: ensuring that the needs and traditions of diverse groups are addressed and their barriers to care are removed and to address the stigma of mental health within communities.

As a part of this project, and a year before the Canadian government’s decision to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, a group of culturally informed and experienced psychologists had already been volunteering their time to participate in a knowledge exchange with ISANS to develop a model of collaborative, culturally sensitive, psychological care for refugees. Dr. Jason Chatman, HarpreetAulakh and Lesley Hartman have been working with ISANS to help develop and support psychological services for refugees because ISANS staff recognized that refugees were having difficulty accessing timely, high-quality, trauma-informed, and culturally-sensitive mental health care after their arrival in Nova Scotia. As part of this work, a larger network of psychologists have now also agreed to participate and help to support the psychological needs of incoming refugees.

Although much discussion in the media has centred around the arrival of the Syrian refugees in particular, every year Nova Scotia welcomes more than 180 refugees from every continent, all of them also fleeing persecution and war in their home countries. With between 6-10 years of post-secondary training in diagnosis and in specific, effective, evidence-based treatments for various psychological problems, psychologists are in a unique position to help. Research shows that the best treatments for people who suffer from moderate to severe anxiety, depression, and trauma disorders are psychological treatments.

Research also shows that not all people who have experienced traumatic events will develop Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), nor require intensive mental health services. The level of control people experience over their lives, as well as the  support of family and friends, can go a long way to protecting people from developing PTSD. Many refugees will find the settlement supports that ISANS has developed, as well as their own family and neighbour supports, sufficient to make a healthy transition to life in Canada.

We can all play a part in welcoming our new neighbours and making the transition easier for them. On their part,  ISANS provides a host of settlement supports, wellness groups, leisure and volunteer opportunities focused on re-establishing refugees’ sense of agency, enhancing skills to deal with stress, teaching about and normalizing normal settlement stress, providing peer support, establishing connections, and building trust and rapport with their new community.

In the case of individuals who will require more intensive psychological services, the physicians at the Halifax Transitional Health Clinic for Refugees and the staff at ISANS will assist in identifying and referring refugees to a network of psychologists who have been specifically trained in culturally-sensitive care, as well as in working through interpreters, and in the specific challenges of the refugee experience. From there, the psychologists will use their knowledge of best-practice psychological
treatments to assist the refugees to move beyond anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental health problems and assist them with adjusting to their new home in Nova Scotia.

– Lesley Hartman, Harpreet Aulakh, Dr. Jason Chapman, Carmen Moncayo