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Ambassadors in the News

This article appeared in the Victoria News on November 29 2023. To read the article in full, follow this link.

Tackling stigma’ Victoria group aims to help immigrants, refugees

The group helped more than 400 individuals

Thomas Eley

Mental health stigma can hinder refugees and immigrants in Canada from seeking help, says Abeer Smadi from the Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees (VICCIR).

“People feared seeing a clinician, they feared for their confidentiality and privacy,” she said.

It is the main reason Smadi started the Health & Cultural Ambassador program at VICCIR to help refugees and immigrants access mental health assistance.

VICCIR is home to people from 75 separate nationalities and the stigma around mental health is shared amongst every single one, according to Smadi.

The program started in 2020, but Smadi says the group had insufficient manpower to make it work. However, creating more outreach was very important for her.

“The first training happened in May 2022,” she said. “We had around 27 people and of course, it was a pilot project.”

In the first year, the group was able to reach out and help more than 400 individuals with mental health challenges.

For Smadi and the centre, there was a lot of pain watching immigrants and refugees struggling with their mental health and not fully understanding the link between one’s physical health and mental health.

“They come as refugees and immigrants, especially refugees with a lot, a lot of trauma,” Smadi said. “They tell you, ‘I have pains, certain pains in my body and the doctor told me there was nothing wrong.’”

The brain can play tricks on the body when under immense mental duress, and the physical pain being experienced by a person might be due to the psychological trauma a person has been through.

A lot of the mental health work is usually done in a third country before the refugee arrives in Canada, but the war in Ukraine changed all of that, according to Smadi.

“They came directly from the war zones to Canada,” she said. “The emergency response usually happens in a third country.”

She said that people fleeing the war in Ukraine arrived at such short notice and with massive mental health needs, so they launched the first phase of the program to help the Ukrainian people.

The training of new health cultural ambassadors started on Nov 10. and ran until Nov 25.

The training was provided by Adrienne Carter, director of services at VICCIR.

One of the big lessons that Carter taught was ensuring the person was physically okay before delving into a full analysis of what mental health challenges a person might have.

“When you meet new newcomers, this is the first thing you do with them. It’s not psychological health,” said Carter. “It’s making sure that they get medical help, making sure that their health is okay.”

She says the Health & Cultural ambassador program aims to provide a human relationship based on love and care.

“And we can do that here in Canada,” she said.

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