For many immigrants, depression's part of life in Canada

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      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!”

      In the Philippines, Riggi and Pamela Ilano enjoyed a high standard of living that they have been unable to regain in Canada. Travis Lupick photo.

      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.

      If you imagine a downward line drawn from an immigrant’s arrival in Canada to the bottom of depression’s trap, Koon Ming Ho is near the end of it. The patients that he sees are usually in his office at the request of a court of law.

      Ho, a clinical counsellor with SUCCESS, is part of a program that provides mandatory counselling for offenders convicted of domestic violence. Ho told the Straight that although the immigrants he sees often led very different lives in their countries of origin, there are certain traits that most have come to share since landing in Canada.

      The percentage that is unemployed is high, Ho said. Most express anxiety about money, and many complain about role-reversal situations like those described by Naizghi.

      Ho emphasized the importance of communication. He said that in many of the cases he sees, the men find themselves unable to express their frustration and attempt to reassert their control of situations with verbal or physical force.

      Immigration is a stressful process, Sanchez said. But there are simple things that people can do to keep themselves as emotionally and physically healthy as possible. She said people must try their best to eat well and exercise and limit their consumption of things like caffeine and alcohol.

      If problems of depression or frustration persist, Sanchez recommended that people seek professional help. In the Lower Mainland, there are many groups that offer support to immigrants, such as Vancouver Community Mental Health Services.

      In addition, the Multicultural Helping House Society offers a mentor program that sees veterans of Canada’s immigration system assist new arrivals with almost any challenge they might face. And SUCCESS hosts various types of support groups at a number of locations across Metro Vancouver.

      Naizghi noted that there are other places people can go for help regardless of their background. For example, he said, in Vancouver there are mosques for Muslims and ministers for Christians.

      For some immigrants, all that is needed is a second look at things. Newman Kusina arrived in Canada in January 2008. When the Straight last spoke with him in May, the frustration he felt came through in every word.

      Kusina, once a university professor in Zimbabwe, was unable to find similar work in Canada and ended up working as a security guard. “I had this collection of applications and I just threw them away,” he said back then. “They were an insult to look at.”

      Six months later, Kusina’s voice beamed with optimism. “You realize if you don’t change your attitude, the world is not going to change,” he said in a telephone interview.

      Kusina stated that earlier in the year, he was depressed. But he said he sat down, asked himself what he should do next, and realized that his unhappiness was only making matters worse.

      “You have to have a Plan B,” he explained. “The next step is to get out of this depression and get real.” Kusina said that health insurance and job security are enough to keep him happy with his current position.

      “Enjoy the little you have,” he emphasized.

      Del Rosario kept a smile on his face for the duration of his interview with the Straight. But he described his experience looking for work in Canada as humiliating and frustrating.

      “I stay home,” Del Rosario said. “I see my kids really doing well at school and studying and I see my wife working. And I told my wife, ‘This is the first time in my whole life that I feel so useless. I don’t know if it is me and a flaw in my character, or that I made a stupid decision to come to Canada.’ ”

      But he added: “I always go back to the reason why we came. That is for my kids.”

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      Jaded in Vancouver

      Nov 26, 2009 at 3:21pm

      I grew up in Canada, have a Canadian university degree, and have had to rely on " survival " jobs myself. Nothing shameful in that.

      If immigrants can't figure out that coming to a new country and starting a new life will mean substantial life-changes, then they should reconsider their options. The people who built up this country were also engineers, doctors, nurses, university professors, architects . . . most of whom worked as janitors, labourers, or anything else to restart their lives . . . all this without the benefit of government subsidies, hand-outs, ESL classes, or multicultural societies.

      Welcome to democracy and self-reliance.


      Nov 26, 2009 at 4:15pm

      On the up side...our government, unlike the US government, doesn't require a MANDATORY Gardasil vaccine for his female children prior to entry!!

      "Ignoring its own Centers for Disease Control immunization expert, the government is forcing girls seeking U.S. residency to get a controversial cervical cancer vaccine that has been linked to 21 deaths and nearly 10,000 adverse reactions."


      Nov 26, 2009 at 5:59pm

      Maybe somebody should have told the Del Rosario's about Canada de-industrialization policy, where we head back to being hewers of wood and drawers of water.

      Walter Talacko

      Nov 26, 2009 at 6:36pm

      Sick and tired of immigrants,Canadians born in Canada live on the streets!!Take care of Canadians in Canada first!Canada do not need more immigration!!!


      Nov 26, 2009 at 7:19pm

      Guess what! Depression's a part of life for Canadians born in Canada! And I bet it's part of life in whatever country any immigrant came from. What a pointless article. You mean that committing the ultimate in selfishness...dropping your life, job, friends, family to move halfway around the planet for financial benefit isn't all it's cracked up to be. I firmly believe Canada has let in too many immigrants from societies that simply don't mesh well with us. Businesses and governments are addicted to increases in the numbers of tax and wage slaves. We need to plan an economy with a stable or slow growing population. Enough with increasing the population by 1% a year...all Asians. Vancouver seems like a strange city that belongs nowhere...too many immigrants..I don't care how much money they make. Enough is enough...people are not afraid to take a stand one is afraid of being called a racist anymore.

      Nov 26, 2009 at 8:22pm

      The article is nearly as mind-numbingly pathetic as the responses is time to open doors....passports no longer necessary..asians and all others welcome..sheep shit you may learn that an engineer from grande prairie would prefer to be a cleaner in shanghai.....vive la diffrance


      Nov 26, 2009 at 8:47pm

      Wow greggon and Walter! This is a Canadian face that I hadn't seen before. See, I ´m an immigrant, I got depressed when I arrived, I got over it, I have a nice job, lots of canadian friends, lots of immigrant friends, I like Canada, I don ´t like the dramatic tone in the article and I don ´t like greggon nor Walter Taco, Talako or whatever.


      Steve from Detroit

      Nov 26, 2009 at 9:41pm

      Re: Jaded in Vancouver--what callous and rather "Reaganite" or "Bush-ite" comments by you. Well by golly if ya ain't "Mr. pull-yerself-up-by-yer-bootstraps", by golly! Just give 'em a kick in the ass and a good talkin' to, that'll teach 'em (not). Also comical is your quaint and jingoistic "welcome to democracy and self reliance".

      Anyways, while this article may not be the most "entertaining" or upbeat article but it makes many good observations and also mentions places where depressed immigrants can get help. The "got mine, f*ck you" attitude by the "haves" isn't helping, and demonstrates bad human qualities on display. Thankfully there are many outstanding social workers and professionals who are trying to help these people adjust and adapt in the face of huge adjustments and changes they are confronted with.

      My final and most important point: I think its time for us to honestly look at capitalism, and how this system leaves so many people jobless, broke and embittered--as they are not given the chance to make their contribution to our communities. This is wrong, unethical and must change. When states in the USA like Michigan have 20% unemployment (or Oregon with 17%!!) this is seriously, seriously WRONG. Capitalism in Canada and USA leaves way too many unemployed and wasting away, or just scraping by hand to mouth. We need a more socialist economic system that gets people working and rebuilding their communities, similar to what Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the 1930s (the CCC for example). Socialism is far more egalitarian and inclusive to humanity; "crapitalism" (capitalism) on the other hand concentrates wealth in the hands of handful of business elites and leaves the other 90% crumbs and subsistence jobs. In capitalism, we wrongly see only "another expense" in the face of the man looking for work; we don't see "another potential helping hand" --which is what a man looking for work actually is. Capitalism is inherently destructive to humans. The problem is the system we suffer under, not the people. Marx was right about "crapitalism".


      Nov 26, 2009 at 9:56pm

      Canada needs immigration - who else is going to pay you your mortgage by letting that hole downstairs for $1000 and more ?
      Plus immigrants are required to bring thousands of dollars with them to support themselves. 250000 immigrants per year times at least $10000 = ?
      My family is going back to the UK which is not as protectionistic as Canada.


      Nov 26, 2009 at 10:51pm

      Walter Talacko - are you serious?

      I am tired of this attitude. Immigrants are willing to work jobs they are overqualified for, they are willing to 2-3 jobs to provide for their families.

      There are jobs out there.

      These 'immigrants' come to this country with as little some of the people living on the streets, but somehow they make it. No, they don't coddled by anyone. There are enough government programs out there for people that WANT to help themselves.

      Canada was built on immigration. OR invasion, depending on how you look at it. It has suited a certain demographic in this country (as seen in some of the above comments) that this country is theirs and all other newcomers are on their own.

      Gregron-You sir really don't understand the history of BC. Asians have been here as long as caucasions. And have faced the same crap you are spewing in your comment as they did 100 years ago. There has always been a significant asian population in Vancouver. Always!

      Go to New York, SF, Toronto, etc..they all have large asian populations.

      If you don't like it leave. There are a lot of small towns across BC that will gladly welcome you and your attitude towards 'immigrants.'