Many emigrate and find a place they want to be, but others struggle

How the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto is tackling mental health issues among immigrants, new and settled


Perhaps it was the drop-in visit back in 2013 from Ballyshannon-born Toronto police officer Kevin Graham that alerted us at the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre (I/CAN) that our services might have to expand to include welfare and mental health. He directed a young man in crisis to us, one of the first such cases with which we were presented.

Or perhaps it was the call from three young men - just 21-years old - to say their friend, experiencing an emotional breakdown, had landed in jail. How could they navigate the criminal justice system here and how could they get their friend support?

These urgent queries set us on a path we’d yet to go down, researching and rallying beyond the scope of our operations.

Though I/CAN was set up to assist new arrivals with information on work permits and employment, “social services” have always been included in our mandate.

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When we opened in 2012, this aspect of our remit was fulfilled by sign-posting to general information such as how to get a provincial health card in any province from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia, and by circulating digital guides on "What Might I Feel After Emigrating?" Our offerings of social services - known in Ireland as "welfare" - were broadly focused on settlement issues. Over six years of operations, needs have changed.

Whatever the ultimate trigger, in 2014, I/CAN completed a series of surveys and focus groups to identify mental health resources required by our clients. Our response to the findings was a digital pamphlet: 'In a Crisis: Pathways to Care'.

“Admitting there is something wrong and reaching out for help are very hard steps to take. Pathways to Care provides a voice for those in need,” Officer Graham said about the programme launch.

In addition to the Pathways project, we refer individuals to Cabhrú: a precious, free online counselling service for the Irish abroad (offered through Helplink Support Services), yet we have frequently found ourselves asking: what else might we do? With a tiny team serving new arrivals across Canada, only varied tactics can bring this "what else" to fruition.

Social media

In December 2017, we launched a social media strategy to address the emotional support needs of vulnerable Irish immigrants to Canada. Posts go out every Monday morning on our Facebook and Twitter pages. The goal: to increase awareness of mental health services addressing depression, loneliness, lack of familiar support structure, transitional stress and anxiety, and addiction (particularly for those ages 18-35).

Recognising the current limits of our human resources, we’ve piloted this project focusing on Toronto and Vancouver, with plans to eventually provide information for those living more remotely.

Our Toronto new arrivals’ representative to the board, Newry-born Michéal O’Rourke (who is a registered psychotherapist and community case m and addiction counsellor) explains: “It’s daunting to leave home and relocate to a new country. Loneliness and isolation can create huge damage in our lives and coping with stress is usually much better when we are around people.”

Making good on this observation, Michéal, has developed a culturally-sensitive program for I/CAN clients in Toronto: Answers from the frontline - a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist answer your questions about mental health and addiction disorders and the treatments available.

“Initially we started by informing and guiding participants but we are now planning for more in-depth, group discussion on mental health and addiction disorders, facilitated by health professionals such as I/CAN board member and Galway-born psychiatrist Dr Shane Mc Inerney,” he says.

I/CAN’s offices are in Toronto as are many of our clients; with critical mass in Vancouver also, we hope to offer a similar workshop on the west coast soon.

Vancouver presents unique concerns including a transient client base (here for a summer college-break) and the fentanyl epidemic, though Toronto is not immune to the latter. (Fentanyl is a prescription pain killer and opioid-is also being produced in illegal labs, mixed with other drugs, and sold on the streets. Fentanyl is being detected in overdose deaths in Vancouver and now throughout North America. )

New arrivals and settled emigrants

A grant just received from the St Patrick’s Benevolent Society of Toronto will allow us to hire a part-time social worker. We’ve identified significant need for this service amongst the newest arrivals but there is demand amongst settled emigrants too. Though this is a demographic we do not generally assist, a mid-winter cry for help found its way to us. Having recently lost a spouse she came to Canada with 40 years ago, the bereaved caller sought to return home late in life. Our friends at the Crosscare Migrant Project Dublin and Safe Home Ireland worked with us to link to resources - it took a cross-Atlantic team to map the route back for her.

Many emigrate and find they are right where they want to be; others struggle, perhaps bringing with them difficulties they’ve carried from home. The standout case for me came on a June morning, in the middle of a Toronto heat-wave. It was Bloomsday, and a digital rendering of the written-word led us to a family in crisis.

Our admin spotted a post on the Facebook page Irish and New in Toronto, alerting the community that a young man was missing. Two hours later we were at Pearson International Airport with his best friend, collecting his parents and beginning a day which, for all of them, must have been as long and complex as the literary parallel.

The gift that arrived for our team, when the parents and son were safely back in Ireland, speaks to the necessity of building capacity in order to grow our services further: “We offer this small gift of appreciation…the inscription croí álainn describes (your work) beautifully.”

We are fortunate to have community support, and cognisant of the many others who seek to ensure mental health awareness is kept at the forefront: our board which secured a handful of dedicated donors for our 2018 mental health initiatives; Canadian GAA Chairperson Sean Harte who believes “we still need to tackle the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, changing the mindset and lending support to programs that aim to improve mental health literacy”; and those facilitating Darkness Into Light and Solace House Sunrise Walks in cities across Canada.

As Michéal shares “a genuine fear exists to come forward, talk openly and seek help” and Officer Graham attests “mental health awareness is making a difference in the lives of our community here.” We are still asking “what else?” but with the guidance of our growing team of experts, we will expand our services to fully embrace the mandate envisioned by those who conceptualised it back when our doors had yet to open, back when I/CAN and our clients had yet to know the challenges we’d face.

Cathy Murphy is executive director of the Eamonn O'Loghlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre (I/CAN). irishcanadianimmigrationcentre.org