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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health
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Amina (not her real name), a young mother of four, faced serious challenges when she separated from her husband. Although she had lived in Canada for more than 10 years, she was isolated in her home, and the fear and stress of suddenly finding herself on her own were overwhelming. She urgently needed psychological counselling and help with learning English, doing her banking, buying groceries, and navigating the city’s public transport. “It is such a humbling and inspiring story,” says Ramzia Ashrafi, clinical practice team lead for Future Ready Initiative (FRI), which has supported hundreds newcomers across Canada since its inception two years ago.
The Future Ready team connected Amina with mentors, both professionals and volunteers (also called “family navigators”) who recognized her situation as an emergency and fast-tracked the help she needed. Within weeks, she had received counselling from a practitioner who specializes in helping immigrants and refugees. “After eight or nine months she was very comfortable expressing herself in English, and with no additional support, found a house and a job that allowed her to financially sustain herself and her children,” says Ashrafi.
Amina’s is one of many success stories to emerge from the initiative, which has multiple programs targeting youth, families, and seniors in need of support with mental health, education, settlement, and employment. “It’s the community helping the community build resiliency,” says Aleem Punja, national operations officer at Future Ready Initiative, whose stated core values are “individual agency, dignity, and equity.”
Not surprisingly, the number of people in need of their support has increased significantly since the pandemic hit three years ago.
“It has not been easy,” says Punja, “but we are doing our best.” FRI is a new national organization with 24 staff members and 500 community volunteers across Canada, yet it is able to provide the range of support services so many need.
The positive energy generated by all those involved in FRI is reflected in the virtual exhibition, Journey Upstream, a moving showcase of art, photography, music, spoken word poetry, graphics, and testimonials illustrating the experiences, hopes, and dreams of those new to Canada looking to connect with others. According to the exhibition’s description, it “aims to tell the story, via different and unique perspectives, of how the Future Ready Initiative fosters hope and builds resilience, and equips families and individuals with resources that enable them to confidently overcome challenges and thrive.” The priority given to mental health support is sharply illustrated in one of the photographs: a chain-link fence adorned with three simple black and white signs — YOU MATTER, YOU ARE NOT ALONE, DON’T GIVE UP.
The multidisciplinary Future Ready Initiative mental health case management team includes social workers, nurses, and psychotherapists specially trained in crucial areas such as suicide prevention, addiction, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder. For those fleeing war and persecution, there is a particular need to offer care “in a trauma-informed way,” says Punja. That means building partnerships with numerous sister organizations, such as ABRAR Trauma and Mental Health, that can offer timely support, virtually or in person. Whether it’s the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, pandemic-related mental and physical health issues, or disruption to income and education due to the disease, war, settlement, or political upheaval — all have had a massive social impact on individuals and families.
For some, reaching out for help still carries a stigma, says Punja. Admitting you are having trouble finding a job, paying bills, or feeding your family is stressful enough, but dealt with in isolation such problems can seem impossible to overcome. Making it easier for people to ask for and receive help means connecting with them in a way that lets them see how everyone has challenges and everyone benefits from helping others. “Maybe a cousin helps you with English, or a neighbour does your taxes,” he says. Changing the language and the dynamics between the helped and the helpers also makes the process of helping someone get back on their feet less stigmatizing. “We don’t talk about ‘poverty’ but rather ‘vulnerability.’”
It also helps to focus on goals: an individual or family may be in a tough place now, but by helping them map out a path to better times, Future Ready emphasizes people’s agency and resilience as they find their own best strategies for success.
As well, helping others be “future-ready” means focusing on community connections as vital to mental health (in addition to direct interventions like counselling and coaching). Events that bring people together, such as musical performances, art exhibitions, sports, and those tailored especially for youth, families, or seniors have been successful in integrating newcomers and helping them stay positive and optimistic despite challenges and obstacles.
FRI’s Impact Report 2022 notes a number of positive milestones for the organization. “Since its inception in 2021, FRI delivered holistic and tailored support in the areas of family mentorship, future of work, mental health, settlement excellence, and youth mentorship to over 727 individuals.” It provided 560 hours of service to people with mental health risks. This included helping individuals on long waiting lists find care from a mental health or primary care doctor and supporting family members who were worried about the mental health of a loved one. Future Ready Initiative also assisted more than 100 family navigators and mentors “to competently manage sensitive situations while avoiding burnout.”
Ali Masroor Bigzad, who emigrated with his family from Afghanistan in September 2021 and currently lives in Sherbrooke, called his submission to the Journey Upstream exhibition “Spark of Hope.” It was FRI that gave him that hope. “Upon our arrival, the FRI officer came to our place and welcomed us on behalf of the community leadership and asked if we needed anything. We were all so happy that these institutions were here, reigniting that hope in us for a better future. The staff supported our settlement in different ways. The FRI member gave me advice about the different education pathways I could take. Without him, it would have been difficult for me to seek out the right path to start my educational journey.”
FRI staff, family navigators, and mentors have every intention of carrying on with the initiative to provide hope and real service to help every member of the community thrive on their journeys.
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