Imagine the stress of uprooting your family to make a new life in a new country in a new language. For women, adapting can be a very different experience than that of their children. Depending on their resilience and their situation, some adapt better than others.
Nazilla Khanlou knows. An immigrant herself, she's been studying the mental health of new arrivals – mainly women and youth – for a decade. But her community-based research goes well beyond gathering information. Whatever she learns about the mental wellbeing of newcomers and the services they need to adjust and integrate she shares with community agencies, health and social service providers and policy makers.
Right: Nazilla Khanlou
In fact, check out her new website and see that since 2008, when she joined York’s Faculty of Health as the first Echo Ontario Women’s Health Council Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research, she has shared her research on immigration and mental health at dozens of conferences and with government ministries. The nursing professor never turns down invitations to speak to local community groups, has started a newsletter and has launched a speaker series at York – anything to help improve the transition of immigrant women, youth and their families into Canadian society.
In her office suite in York Lanes, one room serves as a meeting room, resource library and workspace for her community-based partners, visiting scholars, graduate students and her research team. “I like the connection between academia and community,” says Khanlou, who has put up pictures on the wall and tried to make the room a welcoming, comfortable space.
Khanlou practised as a psychiatric nurse and spent seven years as health domain leader of the Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement in Toronto.
She believes in caring for the individual as well as providing systemic support to promote the mental wellbeing of immigrant women.
“When we talk about women, we’re not talking about a homogeneous group,” says Khanlou. Immigrant women come from varying cultures, religions, regions and educational backgrounds. They juggle many of the same day-to-day responsibilities and face the same pressures and multiple-role expectations as their Canadian-born peers.
Newcomers also face barriers – linguistic, social, cultural and gender-based – and discrimination. Isolation, family pressures and fear of stigma can prevent many from seeking help. To flourish, immigrant women, like everybody else, need fulfilling relationships, self-confidence and a sense of security. They need support systems that provide access to employment and good housing, health and social services, and equitable treatment.
“Good mental health doesn’t happen on its own,” she says. “We need a way to focus on society and systemic issues but not to lose sight of each person's resilience and challenges because at the end of the day, you need to attend to the individual.”
Most recently, Khanlou has collaborated with community partners on a variety of studies. One looked at how newcomer teenagers from Afghan, Colombian, Sudanese and Tamil communities understand mental health and seek help. Another compared the perceptions of newcomer immigrant and Canadian-born residents of Toronto’s St. James Town of their neighbourhood, social relations and access to health and social services and the effect on their wellbeing. With faculty in York's School of Nursing, a third explores the connection between immigrant women’s participation in their community and their success at settling in a community, and a fourth aims to improve the measurement of child and youth resilience.
Khanlou has also reviewed policies on immigrant health and mental health for federal and provincial agencies.
All Khanlou’s studies come with recommendations on how to remove barriers and improve services to promote mental health.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the mental health field because more people are talking about the relevance of mental health to all of us,” says Khanlou. “Hopefully our efforts come together to take away the fear of stigma so when families experience mental illness they are able to access good services and are able to talk about it. We all need good mental health.”