Funding to vanish for refugee mental-health programs in B.C.

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      Vancouver could face a “crisis” due to an upcoming loss of funding for community-based mental-health services for refugees, according to psychiatrist Soma Ganesan.

      The Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST), an organization that Ganesan helped to found, is scheduled to lose 75 percent of its funding at the end of March. Two other local programs offering mental-health supports for refugees are also facing a loss of funding for those services.

      “For the newcomers and others who are now receiving services at VAST, they will be left as an orphan without parents,” Ganesan told the Straight by phone. “They would end up here and there for other services, but because the services are not designed for that population, they…would not be able to provide the same sensitivity…that VAST is providing.

      “We are facing a crisis soon with that population without appropriate help,” he added.

      Ganesan said VAST provides an effective, “nonthreatening” walk-in model of care for people who have dealt with trauma. He noted that some refugees are intimidated by the formal health-care system due to experiences in their home countries.

      “When they first come here, if they need care, number one, they cannot access because they don’t understand the system. Number two, they don’t know what the system is; and number three, they don’t trust the system, especially [if] they’ve been traumatized because of the system of service in the past,” he stated.

      The budget cuts are the result of a change in federal funding for settlement agencies, according to Dylan Mazur, the executive director of VAST.

      For the last decade, VAST has received most of its funding through B.C.’s Settlement and Adaptation Program trauma stream, he noted. The federal government is repatriating funding for settlement services as of April 1 and has asked organizations to apply directly to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. VAST found out in January that its application had been rejected.

      “If we don’t survive after April 1, there will be no community-based mental-health services for refugees in the province,” Mazur said in a phone interview.

      “Where do we refer people—the clients we’re seeing—if we don’t survive? The answer is nowhere.”

      Mazur said VAST plans to keep its doors open at a significantly reduced capacity. But with just a quarter of its funding set to remain beyond March, the organization has had to issue staff-wide layoff notices, and is moving out of its location on East Hastings Street.

      “It’s very precarious right now, and definitely the future is uncertain, but there is a commitment to try and maintain some level of service,” he said.

      VAST, which was formed in 1986, saw more than 600 refugees from more than 60 countries last year. Its services for people who have dealt with torture and political violence include mental-health work such as counselling, settlement supports like help with finding housing, and group programs such as a community kitchen.

      “The one thing about trauma is that it isolates the person, and depression isolates the person, so they’re not necessarily able to go out there and find work, learn the language, whatever it might be—find housing, find a community,” explained Mazur. 

      “That person has a much more difficult time of being part of Canadian society if that trauma isn’t treated.”

      The organization’s care model was helpful for Mauricio Osorto, a refugee who fled Honduras two-and-a-half years ago after his mother, a lawyer in his country, was killed.

      “At that time, I was really sad and depressed, and they always gave me a lot of support and help and they listened to my problems, and after each session I felt better and more positive,” Osorto told the Straight by phone.

      “I just hope they can find the funds.…There’s many people who need help from them.”

      Mazur is hoping to see the provincial government cover the budget gap left by Ottawa.

      “Refugee mental health is falling through the jurisdictional cracks,” he stated.

      “The federal government is sort of saying refugees and settlement, they are a federal responsibility; mental health is a provincial responsibility. The province has not picked up the ball on this issue, and that is something that I really believe the province needs to do.”

      Representatives of the B.C. Ministry of Health and Citizenship and Immigration Canada could not be reached for interviews by the Straight’s deadline.