Mental health effects of premigration trauma and postmigration discrimination on refugee youth in Canada

AUTHORS    Morton Beiser and Feng Hou

LOCATION   National


This report examines the role of pre- and post-migration trauma in explaining differences in refugee and immigrant mental health. Data were derived from mother-youth refugee and immigrant dyads from six countries of origin who were living in Canada at the time of the study. Youth reports of emotional problems (EP) and aggressive behavior (AB) were the mental health outcomes. EP and AB were regressed on predictor blocks: a) status (refugee versus immigrant), visible minority, and gender; b) premigration trauma and postmigration discrimination; c) parent and youth human and social capital; d) poverty, neighborhood, and schools. Refugees suffered higher levels of EP and AB, premigration traumas, and discrimination. Postmigration perception of discrimination predicted both EP and AB and explained immigrant versus refugee differences in EP. Antirefugee discrimination net of discrimination based on immigrant or visible minority status has deleterious mental health consequences.

How does this research apply to my work?

  • Identifying relatively independent sources of discrimination is of more than theoretical interest: combating increasing antirefugee attitudes may well call for different approaches than combating negative attitudes directed toward immigrants or visible minorities.
  • Aside from the family, it is the schools that have the most immediate and enduring impact on young people's lives, and schools must share the responsibility for promoting their mental health

What should I take away from this research?

The adverse mental health effects of discrimination based on visible minority status are well recognized, but there is mounting evidence that the construct of “refugee”—increasingly conflated with fears about national security, uncleanliness, exploitation, and erosion of scarce resources—has become an independent source of opprobrium and risk. The fact that discrimination continued to exert a statistically significant predictive effect even after controlling for visible minority status suggests two separate sources of discrimination, one apparently based on visible cues such as skin color and the other based refugee as a social construction. 

What’s the next step?

Providing health and social services to help repair the mental health damage of premigration experience is only part of a receiving country's responsibility. Avoiding harm by combating discrimination is at least equally important. Recognizing the diverse sources of antirefugee feelings may help in devising remedial and preventive strategies. Overcoming antirefugee discrimination may, for example, combine “celebration of diversity” antivisible minority activities with public education programs demonstrating demographic and economic advantages accruing from immigration. A third component is, however, probably essential: enlisting government and media to explain the legal and moral responsibilities that countries such as Canada have undertaken for refugees, as well as to counterbalance and contextualize antirefugee discourse.

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