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January 31, 2020
by Elizabeth Pratt

Older Refugees Experience High Levels of Depression Even Decades After Immigrating

January 31, 2020 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

Older refugees can experience high rates of depression even decades after immigrating. 

A study that looked at Canadians between the ages of 45 and 85 found that refugees were 70 per cent more likely to experience depression when compared with those born in Canada, even if they immigrated decades earlier. This was after factors like age, sex and marital status were accounted for. 

“There are millions of refugees around the world and they are very vulnerable to depression and other mental illness. Our research underlines the high rates of depression among refugees, even many decades after they arrived in Canada,” Shen (Lamson) Lin, first author of the study and a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Factor Inwentash Faculty of Social Work told Theravive. 

In undertaking the study, the researchers also examined depression in immigrants who didn’t arrive in Canada as refugees. They found that rates of depression among non-refugee immigrants in the study was 16.6 per cent, a similar rate to those born in Canada who experienced depression at a rate of 15.2 per cent. Refugees experienced depression at a rate of 22.1 per cent. 

“Refugees high prevalence of depression may be a result of pre-migration traumas such as genocide, forced displacement, human trafficking, sexual assault, famine, and separation from family. It is also influenced by the fact that many refugees have very low levels of social support. Social support is an important buffer against depression,” Lin said. 

The researchers say their findings indicated that challenges faced by refugees post-migration were less important in contributing to depression than the traumas they experienced before migrating. 

Refugees in the study were less likely to have social support, and the researchers found this was associated with higher levels of depression. 17 per cent of refugees in the study reported they lacked someone in their life who showed them affection and love, compared with eight per cent of Canadian born peers who felt the same way. 27 per cent of refugees felt they didn’t have someone to confide in, compared with 16 per cent of those born in Canada and 27 per cent of refugees felt they didn’t have someone who could give them advice in a crisis, compared with 16 per cent of Canadian born participants in the study. 

When refugees had these three areas of social support, the association between depression and refugee status decreased significantly. 

“This excess vulnerability to depression is influenced by the fact that many refugees have very low levels of social support,” Lin said. 

“The odds of depression were progressively higher with increasing levels of social isolation, measured by frequency of social contacts.” 

The findings of the study could have important policy ramifications for refugees. 

In Canada there are two refugee sponsorship programs. Government assisted refugees, or GARs, are given basic financial aid and assistance from professionals to help them settle. Privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) are given support through a group of volunteers (this may be through a church, mosque or synagogue). The volunteers provide extensive help to refugees and assist them with issues like housing, health needs and finding a job.

A recent study of Syrian refugees in Canada found that refugees who came to Canada as PSRs have more help with daily life, report fewer unmet needs and have a higher rate of employment than those who came under the government assistance program. 

The researchers suggest that those refugees who are privately sponsored may be more likely to succeed post migration because of their strong social support networks with their volunteer helpers. 

The study emphasises the importance of providing mental health support to refugees across the lifespan.

“Providing refugees with mental health services, both upon arrival and in the ensuing decades, may prove helpful. Trauma-inform care is critical for refugees,” Lin said. 

“More research is needed to evaluate early mental health interventions that are aimed at nurturing supportive interpersonal relationships among refugees and asylum seekers in their families, neighbourhoods, and communities.” 

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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