This post was co-authored by Daniel Sanchez Morales and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
Domine Rutayisire, a clinical social worker at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT), recounts a heart-wrenching story about a client’s migration process: “After witnessing his father and his uncle being murdered by the military, he fled his country at the age of 19 and went through nine countries, often on foot. He knew he was going to be next.”
Rutayisire works as a mental health counselor at the CCVT, offering support to survivors of war, torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, or other human rights violations. In her experience, clients have often gone through a variety of trauma, including gender violence or political persecution. Rutayisire explains that of the people who come to see them, more than 25 percent are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.
From dealing with complicated paperwork to saying goodbye to loved ones, migration is an emotionally exhausting process wrought with difficulty. Migrants face challenges such as acclimatizing themselves to a different cultural context, learning a new language, struggling with alienation, and wrestling with feelings of remorse or guilt for leaving their home country, among others.
Amid these struggles, pre-migration trauma is another barrier that interrupts the process of adjusting to a new location.
As an emotional response to shocking or traumatic experiences that occur before migrating, it is rarely spoken about and may further complicate the ability to adapt to a new country and context during settlement. Rutayisire explains that migrants have trauma from their countries of origin, as well as trauma that happens during the migration before they come to Canada. Furthermore, many of these refugees may have been exploited or abused.
In a rush to become so-called “productive members” of society, new migrants often diminish or set aside their emotional response to the stressors they have encountered in their journey in their attempt to begin a clean, new chapter in life. However, pre-migration trauma can precede mental health issues and illness, particularly when there is no attention to the healing that needs to take place.
The CCVT welcomes people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and countries of origin. Rutayisire says that, at present, more than 60 percent of the client population come from non-European countries and identify as BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
It can be more challenging for BIPOC folks to seek support for mental health because of the stigma that remains and because they resist associating with the existing stigma. Some cultures do not see the importance of asking for support, and some do not even recognize mental health as a concept, which itself is often modeled after Western ideas of mental health wellness and illness. As a result, Rutayisire emphasizes that it is important to create spaces where BIPOC folks feel comfortable and safe sharing their stories.
Discrimination and racism may worsen the effects of pre-migration trauma, especially in the absence of early intervention.
Struggling to speak the country’s official language(s) properly or having a different skin tone may be perceived as an excuse to reject a migrant. For example, cultural factors can come into play when migrants attempt to access housing. In an anecdote, Rutayisire shared a story about a client with an evident accent who had an appointment to visit a landlord for housing. When the client arrived, the landlord suddenly informed the client that the house was no longer available, despite nothing having changed since the appointment was made the day before.
Becoming a permanent resident or citizen does not free BIPOC folks from the challenges they will face on a daily basis, as well as the frustrations they must endure, which hinder the process of settlement. They often deal with a lot of mental health issues, and if they aren’t given the opportunity to address these issues, they are very much at risk of falling through the cracks.
It is important to reduce stigma and encourage new immigrant BIPOC folks to seek support when needed. With early intervention and continued support, there emerge successful stories that bring hope. Rutayisire reports that the client mentioned at the beginning of this article is now settled and working full-time in information technology after fleeing his country of origin: “He’s a success story.”
Daniel Sanchez Morales is a contributing writer at The Trauma and Mental Health Report.
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.