Immigrant helps others through mental illness

Editor’s Note:  The Toronto Observer has removed the name of a person who was interviewed for this story. The name has been replaced with initials. The person requested the action because they are now in a position to travel back to their homeland.

L.G. has decided to put her personal experience to public use. L.G., 33, hopes that her own struggle to overcome depression can improve the lives of others. A former journalist exiled from Uruguay, she helps immigrants cope with mental health issues.

Born in Uruguay, L.G. enjoyed success as a television journalist with household recognition. But after she identified herself as a lesbian, she said persecution in Uruguay became so intense that she knew she had to leave the country.

“I would end up dead if I didn’t leave,” L.G. said.

After coming to Canada, L.G. withdrew socially and began to feel despondent.

“I isolated from myself from others … That was the hardest part,” L.G. said.

After recognizing her symptoms were indicative of depression, L.G. sought treatment. Since her recovery, L.G. has decided to spread a message of hope to people affected by mental illness.

“We’re going to go out to the community to tell our experience,” L.G. said.

L.G. has become an integral part of a new project launched by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA) called Opening Doors. This project hopes to de-stigmatize mental illness in the immigrant community by offering workshops to newcomers to Canada.

Peer trainers, or educators who have themselves migrating to Canada and dealt with mental health issues, facilitate the workshops.

L.G. has received training from CHMA about ways to give others guidance through their mental health issues.

The launch of the Opening Doors also included an art exhibition with artwork from CHMA staff and clients. Their work celebrated the joy of communication and self expression. Julie Jarvis, a community artist, organized the art project to exchange ideas between different cultures.

“How do we communicate with people when we speak a different language? A hundred conversations with paint,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis’s piece, entitled “The Power of Words,” depicts a sunny mural with swirls of orange and yellow and black paper silhouettes of clients. It illustrates a figurative space in which people with mental health disabilities can feel accepted.

While both the art projects and the workshops strive to create an atmosphere of acceptance, a 2003 report from CHMA indicates that many immigrants still face discrimination. According to the study by Dr. Matthew Porter and Dr. Nick Haslam, there is a higher rate of psychological distress, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among refugees than for most immigrants. Their study also indicates that if an immigrant has an advanced age or has a high degree of education, their mental illness can worsen after migration.

In addition, Executive Director of CHMA, Steve Lurie, said most people with mental disorders still can’t get the treatment they need.

“Although 20 per cent of people experience a diagnosable mental illness each year, fewer than one in three are able to access mental health services,” Lurie said.

Lurie thinks that’s because the health care system does not provide enough mental health services. He also thinks the mental health stigma makes people reluctant to seek treatment.

By allowing a forum for immigrants to speak about their experience, peer trainer Rene Bogovic said the workshops encourage immigrants to seek treatment for mental illness.

“Traumas tend to silence us. When we tell our stories, we walk away from shame,” Bogovic said.

Bogovic, 25, also said the workshops help build close-knit communities in Canada, since many immigrants are physically separated from their families.

“A lot of us are here alone … A family can guide you and protect you … One of the biggest problems is being isolated,” Bogovic said.

The Opening Doors workshop is available from Monday to Thursday beginning April 12. CHMA will provide the workshops free of charge. The workshops last two hours and CHMA will modify the sessions to suit newcomers who are learning English.

To arrange a workshop call (416)449-4555 ext 239 or email [email protected]