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YWCA Hamilton workshops address unique mental health experiences among 2SLGBTQIA+ newcomers
Just a few months ago, Canada was experiencing a steady decline in COVID-19 cases and life was finally beginning to feel normal again. More Canadians were becoming fully vaccinated against the virus, further restrictions were loosening and McMaster University students were expecting an in-person start of the winter semester.
However, case counts, reopening plans and holiday trips all took a sharp turn with the emergence of the new SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant and concerns around mental health in the pandemic were again exacerbated.
In response to the ongoing mental health challenges, YWCA Hamilton’s Join program, Speqtrum and the RISE Collective hosted a three-part workshop with guest speaker Abrar Mechmechia, a mental health counsellor based in Hamilton, on navigating mental health for 2SLGBTQIA+ newcomers from November to January.
The Join program is a settlement program for women, youth and 2SLGBTQIA+ immigrants; Speqtrum is a skill-sharing and community building program for 2SLGBTQIA+ youths; and the RISE Collective is a youth-led collective for women, non-binary and gender fluid youths.
The first workshop of the series on Nov. 17 discussed pandemic exhaustion and its impact on mental health.
“[We] talked about noticing our bodies and . . . skills and reflections we could be doing to better understand our inner self,” said Noura Afify, 2SLGBTQIA+ Newcomer Youth Support Worker.
The second workshop on Dec. 1 addressed the effects of trauma and triggers on mental health. For many 2SLGBTQIA+ newcomers and other marginalized folks, pandemic fatigue compounded with pre-existing trauma results in unique mental health challenges.
The third workshop on Jan. 5 focused on self-coping tools and how to navigate the mental health system.
At the workshops, Mechmechia also shared some of her findings from a survey of youths between the ages 15-29 in Canada to measure the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and well-being of marginalized youth and identify accessibility barriers to mental health services.
The preliminary findings from the survey highlighted key issues in accessibility of mental health services, financial barriers, lack of cultural competency, ineffective treatment, stigma and academic support.
For instance, 98% of respondents reported receiving long-term affordable care was a challenge. Cultural incompetency also led to folks being unable to access or not seeking help again. Those in school or post-secondary education reported increases in workload and the need for peer support programs.
The survey was a part of Mechmechia’s In This Together campaign, which launched in February 2021, to call on the federal and provincial governments to establish a post-pandemic mental health recovery plan for youths, especially for those who identify as Black, Indigenous, people of colour, newcomers, disabled or 2SLGBTQIA+.
Based on the research, Mechmechia and team highlighted the importance of increasing affordability and accessibility of mental health services, investing in ethnocultural services and providers and offering holistic support. They have also written an open letter to the government outlining recommendations to improve the current mental health support for youth, including the implementation of the post-pandemic mental health recovery plan. The letter has been endorsed by over 300 folks.
Despite the low turnout to the newcomer workshop series which took place on Zoom and challenges using interpreters for group sessions, Afify says it was well-received by the folks who participated.
“Folks were sharing and opening up. They were also understanding each other and compassionate towards each other sharing. I really enjoyed that part and that to me is a success in itself — that folks felt safe enough in this space to share and explore ideas and exchange information about how we cope differently and accept,” said Afify.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s mental health are leading to a global mental health crisis. Particularly for marginalized folks who are already healing from or dealing with existing traumas, the added stress and complexity of the pandemic has created further burden and barriers. The past workshops are one of the many programs and services offered by the YWCA, Speqtrum, RISE Collective and the In This Together campaign to address this challenge.
There are workshops and events lined up for newcomers, youth, women and folks in marginalized communities every day at the YMCA. Speqtrum will also have a session on navigating gender affirming healthcare with live interpretations for newcomers and an at-home treasure hunt coming up.