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Canadian immigrant parents, refugees face greater mental health, financial challenges; Kids’ learning at risk, OISE research shows

As the Canadian government prepares to release its 2018 immigration plan, OISE experts say immigrant and refugee families need more support

By Lindsey Craig

October 25, 2017


At right, Maryam, 8, holds her hand drawn sign as she and her family welcome Syrian refugees to Toronto on Dec. 10, 2015. OISE research shows Canadian immigrant and refugee families need more support. (Photo credit: Stacey Newman; Source: Shutterstock)

Canadian immigrant parents, refugees, women and minorities are at greater risk of mental health issues and socioeconomic challenges, with their children more likely to suffer learning setbacks before kindergarten, a pair of studies by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto have shown.

Research findings come as the Canadian government releases its 2018 immigration policy – which it says will boost the economy and help refugees.

The initial study – the first of its kind in Canada – Emotional Problems Amongst Recent Immigrants and Parenting Status, published in Public Library of Science’s journal PLOS One, shows parents who are new to Canada have higher rates of depression and emotional problems than new Canadian non-parents. This finding is particularly strong among immigrants who were single, female or refugees.

In the second study, School Readiness Amongst Urban Canadian Families, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Educational Psychology, the children of many Canadian immigrant families were found to be behind their peers in learning and development before kindergarten. This included early reading and math knowledge, attention, and social skills.

Researchers say this is often because many recent immigrant parents are socioeconomically disadvantaged compared to the rest of the population. Many struggle to provide their children with learning opportunities before they reach school-age.

Particularly vulnerable

“When we look at the results of these two studies together, we can see that immigrant families are particularly vulnerable,” said Dr. Dillon Browne, who led the studies during his PhD at OISE.

“Not only are the parents at higher risk for mental health issues and financial challenges, but their kids’ learning development is impacted before they have even reached the classroom – this could have long-term implications,” he continued. “These studies show that it’s important to look at how we as a society can better support new Canadian families.”

Dr. Jennifer Jenkins, Chair of Early Child Development and Education at the Atkinson Centre at OISE, said, “As a society, it is imperative that every child and every family has the opportunity to grow and thrive. This cannot happen unless there is equal opportunity for economic stability and mental health.”

Unemployment, housing insecurity, social exclusion, language barriers, discrimination

To illustrate the challenges of the situation further, Canada Research Chair and OISE mental health professor Dr. Abby Goldstein says immigrant and refugee populations are more likely to be exposed to social determinants of health that increase their vulnerability to mental health problems, including unemployment, food and housing insecurity, social exclusion, cultural and language differences, and discrimination.

“For parents in particular, the added costs of childcare and lack of childcare support further exacerbate these challenges. Parents typically rely on family support to assist with childcare, but immigrant and refugee parents are separated from their extended families. There is a lack of affordable childcare options, increasing the financial burden on immigrant and refugee parents,” she said.  

Furthermore, there are numerous barriers to accessing services for immigrant and refugee parents. Language barriers make it difficult to navigate the health care system and to communicate concerns or needs to service providers, she continued. Service providers may also have difficulty distinguishing between stress associated with immigration and the onset of mental health issues that requires a higher level of care.

“The stigma associated with mental health issues and fear of social exclusion from one’s own community, culture or family also contribute to a lack of service use,” she continued. “Some may also be reluctant to trust health service providers or feel uncomfortable disclosing mental health issues, especially when there has been little time to form a comfortable relationship with them.”

Goldstein added that there’s also a need for culturally appropriate services that recognize the unique needs of immigrant and refugee populations and address the challenges associated with settlement in Canada.

“In addition, parents in particular face unique barriers, including fear of child protective service involvement, inability to access services during regular business hours due to childcare responsibilities and prioritizing child health over their own,” she added.

Depression, emotional state of Canadian immigrant parents studied

In the first study, researchers tracked the self-reported rates of emotional and mental health issues of 7,000 immigrants across Canada during their first four years in the country. Results showed Canadian immigrants had a high rate of emotional problems, with one-in-three reporting significant challenges by their second year in the country. These rates were even higher among immigrants who were parents.

“When we saw the impact on parents in particular, it prompted us to dig further – we needed to see how their kids were doing,” said Dr. Browne.

At risk: Immigrant kids in Toronto

In their second study, researchers followed 500 immigrant and non-immigrant families in the Greater Toronto Area from the time a child was born until they entered school.

Results show that two-thirds of the struggling families were headed by immigrant parents living in poverty, whose children were behind in social, emotional and academic skills by the time they began kindergarten.

“In other words, there were gaps in learning before children entered school due to the family’s living circumstances after arriving in Canada,” said Dr. Browne, noting that mental health challenges for parents “do not exist in a vacuum”, spilling over into interactions across the family system, “especially when little ones are present.”

“Some families may struggle to provide their children with enrichment and learning opportunities during the early years. Parents may also become stressed by economic and employment challenges and struggle to create a household environment that promotes learning,” he continued.

Researchers say this pattern holds for many urban immigrants in Canada. Ultimately, they say, it’s a matter of economic opportunity for new Canadians.

Rise in refugees

These findings are particularly important given the recent spike in refugees in the country. Study authors say they hope the Canadian government, which will release its 2018 immigration plan on Nov. 1, takes notice.

“Policies need to facilitate socioeconomic success and mental health following arrival in Canada, given the effects of poverty and stress on early learning, and the effects of early learning on society” said Dr. Browne.

In short, researchers say immigration policies need to consider the following – necessary for new immigrants to thrive:

  • Parenting supports that promote healthy parent-child relationships and child development across the early years 
  • Access to childcare – particularly high-quality childcare that significantly exposes children to English/French during periods of rapid language growth
  • Culturally sensitive mental health services for children and families that have undergone trauma before, during and after migration
  • Opportunities for family economic success including initiatives that reduce barriers to employment and income supplements

The study team hopes to see a government response that involves increased spending for early learning, childcare, and family supports amongst families who have recently arrived.

Dr. Browne says, “We hope this research will impact future policy decisions so that the right supports are put in place to help foster healthy family resettlement and, ultimately, the success of the nation.”


The study, Emotional Problems Amongst Recent Immigrants and Parenting Status, was funded by the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship program. School Readiness Amongst Urban Canadian Families was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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