Small-town living not easy

Life for immigrants in smaller towns is more challenging than for those in larger centres, despite the good intentions of small-town residents.

UBC Okanagan Associate Professor Susana Caxaj said a sense of belonging, or a lack of one, can impact the mental health and well-being among immigrant residents — the same residents who may not use available mental health services.

Caxaj, along with undergraduate student Navjot Gill, examined the well-being of rural immigrants and whether they feel connected to their adopted communities.

The latest Census Canada poll found immigrants and refugees make up 20 per cent of Canada’s population. Caxaj, who teaches in UBCO's School of Nursing, said while many immigrants move to urban communities, these populations in small towns are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing mental health services.

“In rural areas, pathways for mental illness prevention, treatment, and mental health promotion are complicated by a variety of factors including limited services,” says Caxaj. “And while rural immigrant populations may be more likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, it is sometimes harder for these populations to access help.”

During a 12-month study in BC’s Southern Interior, Gill met with immigrant residents and conducted community visits, consultations and focus groups to discuss their sense of belonging. The majority of which identified as having a connection with the Sikh religion or Punjabi culture, and had been in Canada from two to 30 years.

Gill notes rural communities establish programs and specific practices for immigrants and refugees, but sometimes those initiatives simply miss the mark.

“It’s often different in urban metro areas and there is a definite benefit from the high concentration of immigrant groups and they are doing well,” she said. “But we can’t assume what works in a large community is applicable to these same people in a small rural town.”

Gill said local residents must navigate several tensions while trying to establish a place of their own in their community. Such tensions contradict the idea of ‘small town life’ where folks are connected simply by living and working together.

Gill said tensions can be addressed through creative service provision, collaborative decision-making, and diversity-informed program planning.

“In the current global climate we’re seeing a lot of rhetoric about racism, and as Canadians we want to believe where we live is an understanding place, but to be honest it’s not always the case,” says Caxaj.

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