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Death of 9-year-old Syrian girl raises alarm bells among mental health advocates

Death of 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl sparks debate on mental health for newcomers
WATCH: The death of nine-year-old Syrian refugee Amal Alsheteiwi has sparked a new discussion on the mental wellbeing of newcomers to Canada. Alshteiwi took her own life after reporting several incidences of bullying at school.

Following the death of a nine-year-old Syrian girl in Calgary, those working with young newcomers say it is an extreme outcome of a larger issue that many are facing.

“It’s extremely real. If you go and visit schools with refugee kids, you can see they are isolated, they are struggling,” said Zainab Ibrahim, a counsellor with DIVERSEcity in Vancouver. “My biggest fear is already happening … a young girl took her life.”

READ MORE: Syrian family in Calgary mourning loss of 9-year-old daughter who died by suicide

Amal Alshteiwi died in March after her parents said she told them she had been bullied at school for months. Amal’s parents insist they reached out to their daughter’s teacher, but the Calgary Board of Education disputes this. One thing is clear: the little Syrian-Calgarian girl’s well-being was in serious jeopardy, and some worry she may not be the only one in trouble.

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“Yes, they left war, but the trauma is still alive. My biggest fear is that those kids won’t heal or thrive from the post-migration trauma that they could experience,” said Ibrahim, who came to Canada as a refugee from Iraq when she was 15.

WATCH: Mental health advocates concerned about young newcomers struggling with trauma after death of nine-year-old girl

Experts worry about level of support offered to young refugees suffering from trauma
Experts worry about level of support offered to young refugees suffering from trauma

Ibrahim said discussing mental health is still a major taboo in some cultures. Combine that with language barriers and a lack of knowledge about the resources available, and Ibrahim says it can be hard to reach out for help.

Psychiatrist and researcher Prof. Morton Beiser from the University of Toronto says one in five refugee children who experience trauma suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Trauma of leaving behind what they know, trauma of being separated from family — many children have had trauma in the home country,” Beiser said from Toronto.

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“It’s all too common for children to face discrimination, and we have research that shows discrimination does affect mental health,” he added.

READ MORE: Immigrant, refugee youth end up in ER for mental health care more than others — study

Beiser worries there are just not enough people trained to properly deal with these issues in the many countries where refugees settle, including Canada.

“There is a great deal of work to be done,” he said. “It’s also a question of how do we identify post-traumatic stress disorder early on and refer people for appropriate treatment before the disorder manifests in a lot of destructive ways.”

It’s unclear whether Amal had pre-existing mental health struggles upon coming to Canada.

In a statement to Global News, the federal government said: “Assessment for mental illness is part of the immigration medical exam. If any issues are detected, the refugees are settled in communities where support can be provided.”

The Calgary Board of Education is holding a press conference on Monday for the first time since the death of the young student. Local Calgary agencies will also be holding meetings in the coming days and weeks to look at ways to prevent other children from going down this path.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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