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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

CAMH steps up support for refugee mental health

With Canada’s commitment to bring in 25,000-plus refugees from Syria now becoming a reality, CAMH is working closely with its partner organizations to expand local, national and global efforts on refugee mental health.

“Refugees have been through a forced displacement,” says Dr. Branka Agic, CAMH Manager, Health Equity. There is often trauma from having to leave everything, and from the dangers of the journey.

“But their most important needs are a sense of hope and opportunity based on community support,” she says. Along with the basic necessities of food, clothing and a home, refugees need meaningful employment opportunities, access to health care, education and services, she says. In turn, they have a tremendous capacity to move forward and enrich the society that has welcomed them.

Dr. Branka Agic
Hope and opportunity: CAMH’s Dr. Branka Agic.  She can empathize with refugees on a personal level – she fled her home in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. An MD in Sarajevo, she completed her Master of Health Science and PhD in Public Health at the University of Toronto. She is CAMH’s Manager of Health Equity and an Assistant Professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

As a leader in mental health and addictions, CAMH is stepping up its efforts on all fronts to accommodate needs of new refugees coming to Canada.


Enhancing training for professionals through the Refugee Mental Health Project

This year, CAMH has trained 800-plus front-line settlement, health and social services workers across Canada through its Refugee Mental Health Project. As Canada begins to bring in the new wave of Syrian refugees, “we have had a huge number of requests from service providers across the country for this training,” says Branka.

The project provides self-directed online courses, a resource toolkit, a webinar series, networking events and a Community of Practice for professionals who support refugees. There are about 150 service providers on the wait list currently. Funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the program has trained 2,800 professionals over the past several years.

In December 2015, the Toronto Central LHIN provided funding for an additional 300 health service providers to take the course, giving priority to those working directly with refugees.

Read a Toronto Star article on this project.

Improving refugee access to mental health services

CAMH Drs. Kwame McKenzie and Branka Agic are leading a Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) project, in a joint initiative with the Wellesley Institute, to improve access to mental health services and outcomes for immigrants, refugees, ethno-cultural and racialized groups.

Refugees often face discrimination, racism, social exclusion and income disparity, says Branka. The Case for Diversity project aims to help provinces, regions and territories fulfill the MHCC’s challenge to improve access to mental health services for diverse communities. The project’s report is due to be released in January 2016 and will present:

  • the latest research on the mental health of these diverse groups
  • an economic analysis of the potential impact more culturally appropriate services
  • and promising practices around Canada and internationally.


Helping refugees access higher education

CAMH is partnering with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), George Brown College and the Wellesley Institute to develop a program that will help refugees gain access to higher education.

George Brown Professor and Research Coordinator Jaswant Bajwa has launched a research study to facilitate post-secondary achievement of newcomers to Canada who experienced previous political oppression. The project seeks to identify needs and barriers faced by victims of torture, and to help break down barriers to education. The project was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) through a SAMI Post-Doctoral Fellowship.


Increasing outpatient treatment capacity

CAMH is preparing to adapt its outpatient services as required for refugees who may need direct mental health services, says Neill Carson, Executive Director, Ambulatory Care and Structured Treatments.

CAMH will closely monitor demand in the coming months. “We are preparing our ambulatory services to be able to respond to initial demand and we’re working closely with community partners to better understand what will be required over the longer term,” Neill says.

Removing language barriers to treatment and services for non-English speakers

The majority of Syrian refugees speak Arabic and may have minimal English. “We already have Arabic interpreters available and we are enhancing capacity to offer interpretation face-to-face and by telephone for those who may need our services,” says Branka.

CAMH handles about 3,500 requests each year for interpretation services within our clinical programs.

Supporting regional needs in Ontario

CAMH’s Provincial System Support Program (PSSP) has equipped service providers with new Linking Cultures resources. CAMH’s West Region office led the development of the Linking Cultures materials on refugee issues, including a booklet and checklist, says Equity and Engagement Lead Janet McAllister.

Informed by many local agencies, and also by the requests of refugees and immigrants, the resources look at critical first steps and key issues in working with newcomers. These and another product that addresses the challenges of finding health coverage, were developed as part of leadership with the group Networking for an Inclusive Community. Janet can be contacted for copies and more details.

Sponsoring a Syrian family: CAMH employee/Board campaign underway

CAMH is sponsoring a Syrian family to settle in Toronto. Employees and Board members are making personal contributions to support the fund-raising effort to make this sponsorship a reality. By early December, they had raised $26,000 towards the $45,000 goal.

In addition, a small core group will help the family settle during their first year in Canada by:

  • assisting the family in finding housing and ensuring the costs for housing are covered
  • ensuring the family’s needs are met for clothing, furnishings and food, and health care connections
  • working with settlement organizations to register the children in school and enroll the parents in English classes as required, and helping members of the family find appropriate training or employment.

Refugee family
The New Beginnings campaign was initiated by CAMH Board Chair Kelly Meighen. “We know that the CAMH community has a strong sense of social justice, a need to be involved, and a strategic goal to drive social change,” says Kelly.


Working to end detention for vulnerable refugees including children

CAMH is a key advisor to the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR’s) Global Strategy Beyond Detention, which aims to support governments to end the detention of asylum-seekers and refugees, or improve conditions.

The Strategy’s goals are:

  • to end the detention of children
  • to ensure that alternatives to detention (ATDs) are available
  • to improve detention where it is necessary, to meet international standards.

CAMH’s Branka Agic is a Regional Working Group member on the strategy.

Learn more:

CAMH’s Dr. Kwame McKenzie on the mental health of refugees: Toronto Star article.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie
Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CAMH’s Medical Director of Underserved Populations, and Director of Health Equity.

Did you know?

  • Canada annually resettles 20,000 to 25,000 people under the Convention Refugees Abroad class
  • In 2014, Canada resettled 23,286 refugees. Almost half of them (11,468) settled in Ontario. It’s expected those numbers will increase significantly with the new commitment to Syrian refugees.
  • In addition, Canada receives between 12,000 and 20,000 refugee claims under the Country of Asylum Class (refugee claims from inside Canada).
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