Engaging newcomer youth

Young people who are new to Canada face many challenges in adapting to a new environment, culture and language. Newcomer youth and families commonly experience language barriers, a lack of social networks and supports, difficulty finding employment, and other psychosocial challenges that impede their adaptation. Many newcomers, especially refugees, have also been exposed to traumatic experiences, which puts them at higher risk of developing mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Compounding these challenges, newcomer youth are commonly exposed to oppression related to their cultural, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds1,2. They’re more likely to be subject to prejudice and discrimination that rob them of full dignity and power as members of our communities and society.

Generally speaking, it’s still unclear whether newcomer youth show an elevated risk for suicide in Canada as a result of these challenges34,5. This may be because the public discourse on suicide is very different from one culture to the next6. In any case, the adaptation challenges facing newcomer youth are considerable and call for proactive community action.  Communities need to welcome and support newcomer youth and families, and eliminate barriers to their engagement through anti-oppressive, culturally-grounded mental health care and youth suicide prevention/life promotion activities.

As a community coalition, you’ll need to seek out the insights of newcomer youth and community members to achieve an anti-oppressive and culturally grounded initiative. Newcomer youths’ knowledge regarding the challenges of acculturation and resettlement, along with their diverse cultural knowledge, will allow you to plan and implement initiatives that resonate with this population.

How can you engage newcomer youth?

Engaging newcomer youth in your coalition begins with acknowledging the systemic injustices that affect individuals who resettle into Canada from all over the world, and work to instill a climate that promotes mutual understanding, an appreciation for cultural diversity, and respect and dignity for all within your coalition. Consider the following tips to engage newcomer youth in your community efforts:

Embracing the principles of anti-oppressive practice is the first step to making your coalition a culturally safe and inclusive space for newcomers. Anti-oppressive practice with newcomer youth requires you to reflect on your own position of power and privilege with regard to culture, race, ethnicity and religion, and how this can negatively play into your interactions with newcomers. It’s about educating yourself on the history of youth’s different cultural groups, challenging your own cultural biases and assumptions, and holding yourself accountable to empowering newcomers as full, valuable team players in your youth suicide prevention and life promotion work. Offering anti-oppression training to members of your coalition may be a good starting point.

To help you build trust with newcomer youth, it may be important for you to reach out to a trusted member of their community7. This community partner may be a single individual or an organization (e.g. immigrant services, faith groups) and would ideally 1) have experience servicing or working with newcomer youth (e.g. mental health professionals), 2) be able to communicate both in English and the language of the newcomer group, and 3) have a deep understanding of the culture, values, and strengths of the newcomer community.  Liaising with relevant community partners can be an effective way for your community coalition to gain cultural expertise and build trust with the newcomer community.

Culture influences our views on many things in life, including suicide and mental health. In some cultures, for instance, suicidal thoughts and behaviours are a source of great shame and social exclusion for people, and talking about it is not encouraged6. Furthermore, newcomers’ interpretations of illness, patterns of coping and help-seeking, and relationships with service providers8, among other aspects of mental health, may not align with what you know and understand best. To best support newcomer youth’s engagement, it’s important that you stay aware of your own cultural biases and do your research on the different ways culture shapes views of suicide and mental health. Depending on the situation, you may want to hire a cultural broker/interpreter to help you overcome this culture gap.

Depending on how long they’ve lived in Canada, newcomer youth may face language barriers. If that’s the case, it’s important that you mediate this communication barrier as much as possible. On one hand, you should get a sense for the level of language proficiency required for newcomer youth to engage in conversations around youth suicide prevention and life promotion. At the same time, you should accommodate newcomer youth by leading discussions at a pace they feel comfortable, offering information in easy-to-read formats and even translating this information, as needed8. This will show that you appreciate the communication challenges they face and care about engaging them.



Additional resources

Canadian Issues/Thèmes Canadiens is a bilingual manual that includes a compilation of different works addressing the mental health of immigrants.

Determinants of Mental Health for Newcomer Youth: Policy and Service Implications captures the findings and reflections from The Newcomer Youth Mental Health Project, which studied post-migration determinants of mental health for newcomer youth in Toronto.

Improving mental health services for immigrant, refugee, ethno-cultural and racialized groups: Issues and options for service improvement outlines issues to consider when embarking on strategies to improve mental health services for newcomer and racialized groups.

Newcomer Settlement Guide for Service Providers  is the product of The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. It aims to enhance settlement services for immigrant and refugee youth in Ontario.

Racial Profiling and Systemic Discrimination of Racialized Youth: Report of the Consultation on Racial Profiling and its Consequences compiles testimonies on the issues faced by Québec’s racialized youth.

To Build on Hope: Overcoming the Challenges Facing Newcomer Youth at Risk in Ontario explores challenges faced by immigrant youth in Ontario and recommends ways to assist youth in achieving settlement and integration success in Canada.

  • 1. Ellis, B. H., MacDonald, H. Z., Klunk‐Gillis, J., Lincoln, A., Strunin, L., & Cabral, H. J. (2010). Discrimination and mental health among Somali refugee adolescents: the role of acculturation and gender. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry80(4), 564
  • 2. Edge, S., & Newbold, B. (2013). Discrimination and the health of immigrants and refugees: Exploring Canada’s evidence base and directions for future research in newcomer receiving countries. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 15(1), 141-148
  • 3. Lipsicas, C. B., & Mäkinen, I. H. (2010). Immigration and suicidality in the young. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 55, 274-281
  • 4. Hansson, E., Tuck, A., Lurie, S., & McKenzie, K. (2010). Improving mental health services for immigrant, refugee, ethno-cultural and racialized groups: Issues and options for service improvement. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/document/457/improving-mental-health-services-immigrant-refugee-ethno-cultural-and-racialized-groups
  • 5. Hansson, E. K., Tuck, A., Lurie, S., & McKenzie, K. (2012). Rates of mental illness and suicidality in immigrant, refugee, ethnocultural, and racialized groups in Canada. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57, 111-121
  • 6. a. b. Hassan, G., Kirmayer, L. J., & Mekki-Berrada, A. (2015). Culture, context and the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of Syrians: a review for mental health and psychosocial support staff working with Syrians affected by armed conflict. Retrieved from: https://www.unhcr.org/55f6b90f9.pdf
  • 7. Nazzal, K. H., Forghany, M., Geevarughese, M. C., Mahmoodi, V., & Wong, J. (2014). An innovative community-oriented approach to prevention and early intervention with refugees in the United States. Psychological services,11(4), 477
  • 8. YMCA of the USA. (n.d.). Engaging newcomer and immigrant communities in your YMCA. Retrieved from: https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/30278670/engaging-newcomer-and-immigrant-communities-in-your-ymca