Eric Del Rosario and his wife came to Canada for the same reason that most immigrants do: for their children. And the kids love it here, Del Rosario told the Straight at a coffee shop not far from his home in Richmond.
But the move has not been easy on him and his wife, Christine. Moving between countries is an expensive process and money has become very tight. But nothing has been harder on the couple—who were both trained as engineers in the Philippines—than the constant rejection that has come with their hunt for work.
“I don’t know how you can describe it in words,” Del Rosario said. “Your mind runs very fast compared to what is happening. Rather than hoping for something that you will find at the end of the tunnel, your mind is occupied with things that rob you of options in just trying to survive to pay the bills.”
With his head leaning heavily against his arm and a resigned expression on his face, Del Rosario described the weight that so much uncertainty has placed on his family. “If you call this depression, then, yes, [it is] depression.”
A comprehensive analysis of the mental health of immigrants in Canada found that the Del Rosarios are far from alone in their unhappiness. The study was drafted in November 2008 as a master’s thesis written by Mengxuan Annie Xu for the University of New Brunswick. Using results from the Canadian Community Health Survey, Xu found that even for the best-prepared, migration to Canada is a “potentially disruptive and stressful experience”.
According to Xu’s analysis, many newcomers to Canada struggle to adapt to the country’s economic and social institutions. Difficulties overcoming such challenges can affect immigrants’ long-term prospects of adjusting to a different culture, learning a new language, and performing in the labour market.
All of this is at the core of what can be described as a “health immigrant effect”, Xu wrote in her thesis.
A November 23 Statistics Canada report complements Xu’s work, stating that two-thirds of university-educated recent immigrants are overeducated for their current jobs. Furthermore, in 2008, 42 percent of all immigrants to Canada aged 25 to 54 had higher levels of education than their jobs require. A November 12 Statistics Canada report noted the impact that the recession has had on immigrants to Canada, stating that between October 2008 and October 2009, employment among immigrants declined 12.9 percent. (Over the same period, employment for Canadian-born workers only declined 2.2 percent.)
The picture that begins to emerge from Xu’s findings and the latest data from Statistics Canada is made more troubling by anecdotal evidence from British Columbia’s employment professionals, health-care workers, and immigrants themselves. What emerges is a picture of a vicious circle.
Skilled immigrants to Canada arrive with a sense of adventure and optimism, only to be beaten down by sometimes insurmountable barriers to meaningful employment. As rejection notices pile up, frustration can build to the point of depression. And as the months drag on and savings dwindle, mental-health problems can develop and adversely affect a person’s ability to get a job and deal with the day-to-day challenges of life in a new country.
Del Rosario and his family arrived in British Columbia in February 2008. An accomplished civil engineer in the Philippines with a background in the military, Del Rosario thought that his education and years of experience would lead to similar work in Vancouver. But after months spent dropping off résumés, Del Rosario found that the best he could do was work as a private security guard.
Refusing to be discouraged, Del Rosario also pursued a position with the Canadian Forces. “I thought maybe my engineering background and my military background could define what I do in Canada,” he explained. But Del Rosario’s family resisted this path and warned him of how dangerous it could be.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Del Rosario stated. “I would rather die as a combat engineer rather than tomorrow I die kicking out a homeless person from Tim Horton’s at 4 in the morning.”
After months of correspondence, the Canadian Forces told Del Rosario that as a permanent resident and not yet a citizen, he was ineligible to serve. “It seemed that it was really hopeless that I would become an engineer here,” Del Rosario said.
Since 1992, Eyob Naizghi has helped people like the Del Rosarios find work in the Lower Mainland. The executive director at MOSAIC, a multilingual, nonprofit organization that offers services for immigrants, Naizghi told the Straight that he sees prolonged periods of stress and frustration grow to feelings of outright anger.
“It is like feeling that your education does not count,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is a feeling of rejection.”
Naizghi recalled watching skilled immigrants become discouraged to the point where they withdrew from those around them. He noted that the psychological effects of these struggles are often worse for men.
Men are the principal earners in many source countries for immigrants to Canada, Naizghi explained. But for a variety of reasons, upon arrival, families often see the female find work first. This leads to a reversal of traditional roles, where the man is left with little to do and possibly caring for the household for the first time.
“There is nothing wrong with that, except that it does have an impact on the image of the husband,” Naizghi added. “They used to be the protectors of the family. Now they find themselves in a position where they can’t even protect themselves.”
Riggi and Pamela Ilano arrived in Canada with their two girls in February 2009, a year behind the Del Rosarios. Their story is nonetheless similar.
Interviewed in their basement suite near Langara College, Riggi joked about the “Greco-Nordic look” of the place (think IKEA). Meanwhile, Pamela showed off her children’s dozens of stuffed animals and exclaimed how happy the girls are in Canada.
“It’s like they have no clue what is going on,” she said. “It is just like it is a wonderful world!”
Evidently a happy couple, Riggi and Pamela nevertheless conceded that Canada is not what they expected. They agreed that stress brought on by unemployment and growing financial concerns is taking its toll.
“Being faced in a situation like this, with rejection, seeing your bank account slowly go down, it brings out the worst in a person,” Riggi explained. “It compounds the frustrations that you have in your life.” He joked about how cranky he has become.
Riggi, who worked in wealth management in the Philippines after obtaining bachelor and master’s degrees in Australia, said that he knew he would have trouble finding work in finance. “But my plight now is that I can’t even get a survival job.”
Turned down by Pier 1, Esprit, and Chapters, Riggi, again with a sense of humour, said that he has come to look at the Wendy’s down the street in a new light. “But I leave that for last, because once those guys turn me down, then where am I ever going to get a job?” he asked. “After we crossed over into October,I began to wonder what is going to happen.”
Riggi described his current state as burned-out. “It’s like an initiation,” he added, where depression is just a part of a new life in Canada.
According to Hiram Mok, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at UBC, the changes in mood that immigrants like Riggi are feeling are the result of physical alterations happening at a neurological level.
Mok explained that people under chronic environmental stress are susceptible to changes in the brain that can lead to clinical depression. A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor precipitates the communication of neurons, he continued. When a person suffers from prolonged periods of stress, genes responsible for the production of BDNF are repressed, which can result in neurons suffering from atrophy and even death.
In addition, the production of other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine is adversely affected, Mok said. This leads to a chemical imbalance that can result in depression. Symptoms include sadness, memory loss, fatigue, poor concentration, low energy levels, and a lack of ambition, Mok said.
He agreed that these are not the characteristics that a boss is looking for in a job applicant, and added: “It is a vicious cycle. You can’t get out of it because it just gets worse.”
Norma Sanchez routinely sees the symptoms that Mok described. As the coordinator for Vancouver Community Mental Health Services’ cross-cultural mental-health program, she oversees the counselling of patients diagnosed with severe mental illnesses such as chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, and psychosis.
“The problem is that people come to Canada through the points system,” Sanchez told the Straight in a telephone interview. “They have to be highly qualified to come as skilled workers, so when they arrive, they expect to find jobs right away. But the jobs are not available.”
She recalled a number of instances of skilled immigrants approaching her with stories of working menial jobs below their education levels. The result is often severe anxiety and depression, Sanchez said. “They are demoralized”¦.Their socioeconomic status really comes down, and that creates a lot of distress.”
She agreed with Mok that the symptoms associated with such disorders make finding a job increasingly difficult.
Sitting at a table at the Multicultural Helping House Society, Tom Avendaño, the outreach centre’s president, and Alice Zhou, a job developer, told the Straight similar stories.
According to Zhou, there is a pattern for newcomers to Canada wherein immigrants are initially happy and eager in their search for a job. But as the months without work drag on and savings accounts shrink, frustrations lead to tension within the family and people become disillusioned.
Avendaño described these situations as “volcanoes”. He emphasized the importance of seeking help before problems erupt.
Part of Zhou’s job is to conduct mock interviews with job seekers. She said that it is in these sessions that the symptoms of depression become apparent. Zhou recalled watching highly trained and experienced candidates undersell themselves and display a lack of confidence. “It is their attitude that is getting them rejected,” she said.
Tom Avendaño and Alice Zhou work at the Multicultural Helping House Society to help immigrants to Canada establish themselves in the country. Travis Lupick photo.