A Look at How Psychology Can Help and Support Refugees

by: Marcela Olavarria Turner, M.A., C.Psych. Assoc.

In recognition of World Refugee Day, we want to highlight how psychology can help and support refugees in their journey to building their lives in Canada. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of 2016, there are 121,267 refugees and asylum seekers in Canada alone, and a sky rocking 67.75M refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees, stateless and vulnerable persons worldwide. Before arriving at a receiving country, many refugees experience things such as war, violence (sexual, physical and psychological), torture, political repression, and multiple losses. They can also experience harsh conditions while transitioning to a safer place, such as more exposure to violence, separation from loved ones, uncertainty about their own and loved ones’ safety, doubt about both their future and about the outcome of their migration. 

Despite these experiences, refugees show remarkable ability to adapt and cope with such adversity. Nonetheless, once refugees have arrived in safer places such as Canada, they can still experience temporary or enduring difficulties as a result of migratory experiences and stressors related to adapting to a new social, economic and cultural environment. These difficulties might be: 

  • Physical: difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, muscle tension, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, decreased or increased appetite, etc.
  • Emotional: intense fear and feeling of insecurity; mood swings; irritability; overwhelming emotions; anger and sadness
  • Changes in thoughts: changed sense of how you perceive yourself, the world, others, and how you relate to others; demoralization, disillusionment; helplessness and/or hopelessness;
  • Changes in behaviour: restlessness; moving or speaking very slowly; withdrawal; being easily startled;  

If you can relate to the portrait painted above, know that you are not alone. There are professionals and organizations that can (and want to) help. 

Psychology can help reduce the impact of some previously noted difficulties by using proven and effective treatment strategies that respect cultural background and the strengths present in each individual. Psychological services help people heal fostering psychological coping strategies, connections through a social support system and keeping active. Therapy is a safe place to learn about and explore one’s mental health struggles while strengthening one’s capacity to adapt to challenging life events.

CFIR’s Refugee Assessment Services provide psychological and neuropsychological assessments for those individuals facing Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) reviews. For more information, please visit our Immigration & Refugee Assessment Service page.

As a refugee, if you need additional support, consider also consulting the ‘Services for Refugee Claimants in Ottawa’ online document.

Immigration – Adaptation Process

by: Dr. Rana Karam, C. Psych.

In our previous blog, we discussed immigration and the concept of “culture shock” which is a common product of immigration. In this blog we will discuss the cultural adaptation process and offer some strategies to help you cope with difficulties stemming from immigration and culture shock.

Adaptation process

  • The first stage, just before or shortly after immigrating, is often described as the “honeymoon” stage. It is filled with high hopes, great expectations, confidence, happiness, fascination and excitement towards the new culture.
  • The second stage, the “culture shock” described in our previous blog on immigration, is a period of destabilization that can last between 3 to 18 months.
  •  During the third stage, often referred to as the “adjustment” stage, stress and anxiety recede. The individual starts to accept their new surroundings, feels more in control of their life and gains a better understanding of their host country.

Coping strategies

Despite the lack of a quick fix to culture shock, it can be very relieving to recognize that it forms part of a “normal” adaptation process to a new culture. Often, the best remedies are time and prolonged contact with the new culture. Consequently, resisting the temptation to withdraw and avoid any painful and stressful contact with the new culture and making a conscious effort to adjust to it are key coping steps. Moreover, stress management strategies, self-care, social support from compatriots, creating new relationships with people from the host culture are also important. The following is a number of more specific suggestions on how to cope with difficulties related to immigration:

  • Acknowledging that these impacts/challenges exist and are not signs of weakness.
  •  Learning the rules of living in the host country (how and why people act the way they do and their behaviours and customs).
  • Getting involved in some aspect of the new culture (study art or music, learn a new sport, volunteer in your community).
  • Taking care of yourself (eat well, exercise and get a good night’s sleep).
  • Sightseeing in your new country.
  • Making friends and developing relationships.
  • Maintaining contact with old friends and family back home.
  • Keeping a journal of feelings, reflections and experiences or sharing them with others to help you sort through them.
  • Doing something that reminds you of home (listen to your favourite music or practice a familiar hobb

Cultural adaptation: a lifetime process! 

In general, the process of adaptation is a slow and lengthy one. It often continues throughout the person’s stay in their new culture. Building a new cultural identity is the product of a personal integration of values from both cultures (new and existing culture). Such integration can aid in forming an integrated identity from the two cultures, absorbing the culture shock and supporting the individual in their exploration of the new culture.

More often than not, cultural interactions enrich our life and enable us to identify and better appreciate some aspects of our own culture.

Psychologists and psychotherapists at CFIR can help you navigate through such challenges and cope with the various intercultural difficulties and struggles that may come your way. 

Read more about our Multicultural Treatment Service.

Immigration – Process and Impact

by: Dr. Rana Karam, C. Psych.

Welcome to our blog on immigration! In this blog, we will discuss the immigration process and its impact on the immigrant. In our next blog, we will discuss the adaptation process and offer strategies for coping with the various challenges of immigration.

Starting a new job, going to a new school, moving to another city are common experiences that resemble immigrating to another country. The individual leaves a familiar milieu and dives into a new and unknown environment. This, inevitably, implies a period of adaptation. Such a period can be filled with excitement and hope for success and growth but it can also bring stress and anxiety. Most notably, for people who are changing countries, these difficulties are amplified because the difference between the familiar and the unknown environment is greater. 

What are the underlying experiences of migration? Migration means departing from (emigrating) the people, places, sounds, and scents upon which ones internal and external world was built. Migration also means arriving in a new country (immigrating) and rebuilding, in a short period of time, ones life. Immigrating entails recreating for oneself essential and basic things that were once established in their native country. For instance, rebuilding a work environment, forging new relationships, establishing a new home, and the like.

The experience of immigration is unique to each person and varies according to ones personal history, the reason for, and context of, immigration (whether it was voluntary or an obligation, temporary or permanent, etc.). However, some challenges and impacts are common to that experience.

In general, immigration leads to a period of disorganization that varies in length for each individual. For example, struggling with contradicting desires is very common. Two distinct types of desire are usually manifested, these are: 

  • The desire to blend in with others in order not to feel different or ostracized; and
  • The desire to distinguish oneself from others in order to remain the same person as before immigrating.

In general, this period of disorganization is sometimes referred to as “Culture shock”.

The concept of culture shock describes a common reaction to a new culture and is one of the phases of the adaptation process to that culture. It is a period of stress, anxiety, tension, nervousness as well as sadness, confusion, surprise, disgust, rejection, and helplessness vis-à-vis the host society.

During this stage, one may undergo a broad range of experiences and behaviours such as:

  • Feeling angry, uncomfortable, disappointed, confused, frustrated or irritable;
  • Eating and drinking compulsively or needing excessive sleep;
  • Having difficulty going to work or looking for a job;
  • Avoiding contact with people from the host country and spending time alone or only with people from ones own culture;
  • Having negative feelings about the people and the culture of the host country;
  • Focusing on the differences between oneself and people from the host country;
  • Missing ones family and feeling no connection to the host country; or
  • Feeling guilty about leaving family members behind.

The reaction to a new culture is a “shock” primarily because of massive and unexpected changes in ones life and overwhelming exposure to new things. Moreover, exposure to cultural differences can lead a person to question their cultural values. Culture shock is also caused by the anxiety provoked by the loss of our cultural references and familiar symbols in social interactions (e.g., whether to shake hands, hug, or kiss when meeting someone; when and how to tip a service provider; gift exchange; dress codes and customs). Other contributing factors to culture shock include language barriers, experiences of discrimination (prejudice and racism from the host culture), getting recognition for ones education, and qualifications in the host country.

Psychologists and psychotherapists at CFIR can support you and your family members to better cope with these immigration-related difficulties. 

Read more about our Multicultural Treatment Service.