Syrian refugees expected to face mental health challenges

OTTAWA – Refugees are at a high-risk for mental health issues and often suffer spiked rates of depression and substance abuse, Canadian experts say.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says challenges for newcomers often stretch far beyond post-traumatic stress disorder following time in war zones or refugee camps.

“The truth is, the studies have shown that the rates of mental health problems are increased, for every mental health problem,” he said.

Some of those issues include a higher-risk of schizophrenia and depression, McKenzie said, adding he is pleased the government plans to help refugees settle immediately in host communities.

Unlike the 5,000 refugees who came to Canada from Kosovo in 1999, Syrians will not be housed on military bases unless it is deemed necessary.

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READ MORE: Health care providers preparing to help Syrian refugee children and babies

“Some of the studies that have been seen worldwide say that you can decrease the risk significantly if you’re careful about what you do when people come to the country,” he said.

The effects of conflict, displacement, travel and family separation were all considered when the federal government crafted its plan, Health Minister Jane Philpott said Tuesday as the Liberals announced they intend to bring 10,000 refugees to Canada by year’s end and another 15,000 by February.

“Mental health concerns are amongst the concerns that we expect to see,” Philpott said.

The minister also said the government determined it would be in the best interest of refugees to ensure a quick transition into communities.

“We believe that as soon as they can get to their ultimate destination, that will be the better,” Philpott said.

The challenge of mental health among Syrian refugees has been on the radar of government officials for several months, according to documents obtained through Access to Information.

READ MORE: How to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees: A step-by-step guide

A Canadian clinical psychologist, Rebecca Dempster, presented to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees core group on Syrian refugees to teach officials on dealing with trauma victims.

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“The training offered insight into the impacts that traumatic incidents have on victims’ memories,” a senior policy analyst in the Immigration department said in a e-mail earlier this year.

“The presentation explored the psychosomatic responses and various recovery stages that trauma victims go through.”

McKenzie says he is hopeful the Syrian refugee crisis will lead to a greater conversation about mental health supports for newcomers.

“I really welcome the fact the government is interested in the mental health of Syrian refugees,” he said.

“Syrian refugees are like most of the other refugees that we take in each year. Canada already takes in 25,000 refugees a year.”

McKenzie said mental health services are a sound financial investment, especially when women, children and families are at the core of the government’s pledge for Syrian refugees.

READ MORE: Canada to miss target of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end

“From the children’s perspective, for every dollar you put into mental health promotion, you’re going to get $7 back,” he said. “From an economic perspective it is a no brainer …

“We haven’t got all of the therapists we possibly need but if we just connect up what we’ve got and then we try to build capacity, we should be able to offer a mental health response that will make us what we should be, which is world leaders in this.”

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– with files from Stephanie Levitz

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