Childhood trauma has impact on adult mental health of immigrant population

Vincent Kuuire
Wednesday, April 24, 2019 - 10:04am
Elaine Smith

Immigrants to Canada who suffered physical or sexual trauma as children are much more likely to have mental health issues as adults than other immigrants, says a new study by Vincent Kuuire, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

The findings suggest that the health-care system should take a holistic view of immigrant well-being.

“We need to recognize that the health of Canada’s immigrants is not influenced just by what has happened to them recently or while they have been living in Canada,” says Kuuire, who is cross-appointed to U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “It is important to note that immigrant psychosocial health issues -- including prevalence and use of mental health services -- generally receive limited research attention relative to immigrant physical health and general health care access.

“The motivation of this research is to broaden our understanding of factors that influence immigrants’ health and well-being. The way childhood adversity impacts mental health is different than if we were dealing with people without such experiences.”

His study, published online in the April 4 issue of the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, shows that physical abuse during childhood resulted in a 29 per cent increase in the likelihood of an immigrant having a psychological mental condition and a 31 per cent greater probability of having poor self-rated mental health. An experience of sexual abuse during childhood led to a 28 per cent greater likelihood of poor self-rated mental health.

Kuuire, an immigrant himself, obtained the data for this study from Statistics Canada’s 2014 General Social Survey, a study focused on Canadians ages 15 and older that is conducted every two years. The 2014 cycle of the data focused specifically on victimization and retrospectively collected information on experiences during childhood. While the nature of the data makes it almost impossible to draw causal links, Kuuire says, it’s still very important to try to explain why there is an association between childhood adversity and mental health concerns

Immigration poses numerous challenges, whether or not the immigrant suffered childhood adversity, Kuuire points out. Suddenly, the person is living in a completely different society with new rules and a new language; discrimination may be present and financial opportunities may be limited. The immigrant may find accessing healthcare challenging and obtaining mental health services prohibitively expensive.

Add childhood adversity to the mix and there is an even greater need to be aware of the new Canadian holistically, taking into account past experiences including those that occurred in the distant past. Usually, children who suffer abuse generally grow up in chaotic family environments with weak support systems. Some of them develop unhealthy ways of coping with the adversity they have suffered, such as drug abuse and isolation, which all impact their mental health later in life.

“Given all the adjustments immigrants have to make, I’m not surprised by the effects traumatic childhood experiences have in later life,” he says. “Immigrant well-being must be looked at more broadly – over the person’s entire lifetime – because the effects of early trauma have health consequences in later years.”

In examining the data further, Kuuire found that the more educated immigrants had a lower likelihood of having a psychological mental condition, as did those who were married compared to those who were not. He theorizes about the underlying reasons.

“If you have higher education, you probably have a higher income and access to supports,” he says. “There’s more opportunity for employment and activities that promote a sense of self-worth. It could also be that it allows you to accept more easily the idea that you need to seek professional help. In terms of marriage, it may help protect against many negative health outcomes, because you share experiences with your partner. It doesn’t replace professional assistance but it is a helpful starting point in getting over trauma.”

 “Since Canada is looking to immigration as a way to boost its population numbers, it is important to increase our understanding of the factors associated with immigrant psychosocial health outcomes.”