Mennonite New Life Centre


AUDIENCE   Settlement, social, and health service providers

POPULATION OF INTEREST   Immigrant and refugee populations

LOCATION   Toronto, ON

THE NEED   In Canada in the 1970s, the Ontario Mennonite community was heavily involved in sponsoring Vietnamese refugees, and in the early 1980s they began to look for opportunities to support a new wave of refugees coming from Latin America. After an initial period of research and needs assessment with the Latin American community in Toronto, the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto was founded in 1983.

WHAT'S PROMISING   The Mennonite New Life Centre has a Community Mental Health Program as their core service, allowing to weave clients’ mental health considerations into all aspects of programming.

KEY TAKEAWAY   The Centre adopts a holistic approach to service delivery that is guided by the input from both staff and its clients. The ability to adapt and be flexible to emerging needs was evident in the approach to the integration of technology into its programs and services as an accelerated priority due to COVID-19.

Mennonite New Life Centre

The Mennonite New Life Centre (MNLCT) is a settlement agency supporting newcomer, immigrant, and refugees’ journeys towards making Canada home. For more than 35 years, the Centre has taken a holistic approach to service, seeing newcomers as whole human beings with lived experiences and global perspectives and recognizing and honouring them as individuals who feel, think, have agency, and contribute to their communities.

The Centre was born out of the pacifist tradition of the Mennonite Church and the forced international migration experiences of Mennonite communities throughout the centuries. In Canada in the 1970s, the Ontario Mennonite community was heavily involved in sponsoring Vietnamese refugees, and in the early 1980s they began to look for opportunities to support a new wave of refugees coming from Latin America. After an initial period of research and needs assessment with the Latin American community in Toronto, the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto was founded in 1983. Over the years, the founding vision of service and solidarity with refugees and displaced peoples has led the MNLCT to reach out to new refugee and immigrant communities, adapting and expanding its programs to respond to diverse needs and aspirations. At each step of the way, the Centre has worked to build a caring and inclusive community, where the ideas and contributions of newcomers are respected and valued. Together, newcomers and neighbours support each other, learn from each other, and take action together for a more just and compassionate society.

Right from the early days in the Centre’s history, it was recognized that newcomers needed not only integration services, but also supports to keep their mental health intact while they navigated how to live, work, play and learn in their new home. Back then, this programming was called “emotional support” and was offered to clients who were possibly grieving the life and family they left behind, or who were trying to cope with migration stress, adjustment disorders or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among other concerns.

Key mental health programs

Over the years, the emotional support programming evolved into a fully operational Community Mental Health (CMH) Program. That this service has been in existence for much of the Centre’s 37-year history speaks to how central meaningful and timely mental health counselling for newcomers is to the mission and vision of the Centre.

The Community Mental Health (CMH) Program offers culturally appropriate individual and family counselling to help newcomers navigate emotions related to their migration process – anxiety, depression, loss, grief, PTSD, and more –  or to offer support through other life circumstances like separation/divorce or involvement with the justice system. The CMH team also offers psychoeducational workshops, often through the engagement of internationally trained mental health professionals studying in the Bridge to Registration and Employment in Mental Health (BREM) Program and doing their placements at the Centre. Other offerings of the CMH Program include well-attended language-specific wellness groups. Last but certainly not least, CMH Program staff make presentations to clients in other Centre programs, such as bridging programs and LINC classes, and they receive internal referrals from these programs as well as settlement counsellors.

Having the Community Mental Health Program as a core service allows the Centre to weave clients’ mental health considerations into all aspects of its programming. A great example of mental health support integration is the Helping Our Newcomers Prepare for Employment Success (HOPES) Program, which focuses on helping those living with mental health challenges enter the labour force. Successful client outcomes are achieved not only through a robust network of community connections to Employment Ontario offices, educational institutions, and employers, but also due to a system of ongoing mental health supports within the program itself. By creating a create a circle of care for clients while they are trying to break into the labour market and find sustainable employment, they feel more optimistic about their future lives in Canada and are more able to achieve their short, medium, and long-term career and life goals.

Language Instruction Giving Hope to Trauma Survivors (LIGHTS) is another example of a whole-person approach to service delivery. Clients living with trauma can be further isolated by the lack of ability to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages, yet those same people are often challenged by the rigid structure of typical language classes – further perpetuating their difficulties. The LIGHTS program works with trauma survivors to build their functional language skills through flexible, trauma-informed, learner-centred programming provided collaboratively by a language instructor and a mental health professional. The results have been even more encouraging than expected, as immigrants with 10+ years in Canada have emerged from this transformative program with the confidence and language skills to truly begin to integrate into their no-longer-new communities.

Now in its 10th year, the aforementioned BREM Program is another longstanding program of the Centre. This bridging program was developed to create pathways to employment for internationally educated mental health professional in Ontario., and MNLCT has since welcomed and supported nearly 400 international professionals. Most recently the program expanded to help participants and other mental health professionals with a strong background in psychotherapy to meet the requirements for registration with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO). By partnering with organizations in the mental health sector, BREM connects participants to on-the-job work experiences, community agencies to culturally competent, skilled professionals, and community members to local, culturally appropriate mental health support –an arrangement that everyone can benefit from.

In 2017, the MNLCT launched its social enterprise, the Toronto New Life Wellness Place (TNLWP), to provide multilingual, multicultural wellness services to anyone seeking support. With a diverse roster of Registered Psychotherapists, Registered Social Workers, a Registered Nurse, and other wellness professionals offering services in nearly 20 languages, the Wellness Place is able to support a broad range of newcomers and non-newcomers who seek culturally appropriate mental health support. TNLWP clients come through referrals from MNLCT as well as through other community and health organizations seeking supports for their own clients. The Wellness Place’s roster modal allows internationally trained mental health practitioners, such as graduates of the BREM Program, to establish and grow their practices within an organization that understands their unique needs. It also allows community members to get the help they need quickly as there is no waiting list.

In addition to ensuring mental health considerations in client service offerings, the Centre emphasizes wellness for staff, placement students, and volunteers – many of whom are immigrants or refugees themselves. Prior to the pandemic, the Centre hosted annual in-person, full-day Wellness events for all staff, students, and volunteers, and because the activities and learning sessions were developed based on the people’s self-identified needs, they were highly engaged and gave positive feedback. When the pandemic necessitated that staff work from home, Centre leadership viewed staff not only as employees but also as humans experiencing an unprecedented global emergency, with all the uncertainty and stress that entails. Internal communications, policies, and practices ensured that staff knew they were valued and supported. The Centre ran a series of weekly mental health workshops, led by Wellness Place practitioners, to help staff navigate their new realities and it recently created a Wellness Committee to supplement the work of the Health & Safety Committee in ensuring an ongoing commitment to a holistically healthy workforce. One of the first tasks of the Wellness Committee is to transition the in-person Wellness Day event to a meaningful online event that meets the existing and emerging mental wellbeing needs of staff. Staff that feel supported are more resilient and better positioned to be able to continue helping clients now and, in the years, to come.

Shifting to virtual service provision

The Centre’s holistic approach was evident yet again when it started to think about integrating technology into its programs and services – an accelerated priority due to COVID-19. In addition to the technical aspects, internal processes and client readiness were carefully considered in order to make sure the introduction of technology would indeed enhance service delivery and provide clients with a safe and protected environment in which they could receive meaningful support, including secure, confidential mental health counselling. While some of the tech solutions had been in the planning phase for some time, the urgent need to keep clients and staff safe during the pandemic gave the Centre the energy and focus to make these plans a reality very quickly. Two notable launches include the implementation and roll-out of the MNLCT iCent Newcomer Support Mobile Application with objective of providing clients, partners and other stakeholders with 24/7 access to information related to COVID-19 and government support programs, settlement, mental health and community supports. We also adopted a fully online, end-to-end encrypted virtual counselling platform called VirtualCare which allowed Community Mental Health practitioners to provide mental health services through video and secured text and phone services.

As a result of the Centre’s wide adoption of technology solutions throughout its operations, at present, most Centre programs and services are being offered completely online. The only exception is in-person individual appointments for vulnerable newcomers – such as those who have been trafficked, who do not have reliable access to the internet or a private space for a conversation – or for clients who need printed copies of forms, documents for translation, etc.

Tips for success

As with everything the Centre does, providing imbedded mental health supports and adapting to the challenges of the pandemic have drawn on the flexibility, collaboration, and creative thinking of staff. Without their input and guidance, solutions would not be as client-driven and holistic as they are.

It is essential to have in-house mental health talent, and to have them involved in cross-program collaborative work, in order to provide a consistent mental health perspective on program development and delivery.

All staff should understand the factors that contribute to good mental health – their own, their clients’, and their colleagues’ – and be supported in making suggestions and implementing solutions that support this outcome.

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