Calgary, Alberta

Calgary’s Ethiopian, Eritrean community training local leaders in mental health response

Goal is for faith leaders, community figures to be first line of mental health defence

Dan McGarvey · CBC News · Posted: Mar 05, 2022 5:00 AM MT | Last Updated: March 5

A program run by Calgary’s Ethiopian and Eritrean community is training its leaders to act as first responders and mental health advocates to meet the high demand for mental health supports in that community.

The Immigrant Outreach Society says people in the community are more likely to turn to their own leaders for help when they need advice or counselling, avoiding the maze of language and cultural barriers they face when trying to access mainstream mental health supports in Alberta.

“For many, many refugees, their community leaders and faith leaders are their first responders. It’s like calling 911,” said Adanech Sahilie, founder and executive director of Immigrant Outreach Society, which serves the Ethiopian, Eritrean and other East African groups.

People in her community share the same languages, background, complex pre-migration and settlement experiences, and in many cases the same trauma.

“Refugees can spend 10 or 20 years of their life in a refugee camp. When they have the platform to open up in their own language to someone who can easily relate to them, they start crying. Even without saying anything, if someone can relate to them culturally and understand what they feel without judging them, it’s a huge support,” said Sahilie. 

Through an online program, leaders are equipped with the tools and training that can help them identify when someone is struggling with mental health and how to help them navigate the route to services that can help. 

“The discussion is really hard, they open up, they share stories and it’s good exposure for us as well,” said Sahilie. 

The program is run by a registered psychologist with ties to the community. At the end of it, participants get a certificate and an in-person graduation.

“Most immigrants from East Africa leave because of human rights violations, persecution, war and conflict,” said psychologist Solomon Agaje.

Agaje says PTSD is up to 10 times more frequent in immigrant and ethnic minorities than in the host populations of the countries they resettle in, yet access to mental supports for immigrants is still lacking.

Immigrants also deal with stigma and cultural differences when it comes to recognizing and talking openly about mental health.

“The traditional mental health provision system, based on a one-size-fits-all mental health triaging system, doesn’t really fit for minorities,” said Agaje. “They’re not in a position to seek out treatment. So what we found to be effective is using local resources, informal networks and faith-based institutions to reach out to them.”

Latjor Tuel, a former South Sudanese child soldier, was shot dead by Calgary police in February after he found himself in a mental health crisis and surrounded by police officers. He had PTSD and a history of mental health issues.

Tuel’s death has lead to questions around the role of grassroots community mental health supports in Black communities and how having trained community leaders on hand could have resulted in a different outcome.

“He was trying to communicate in his language but police were not understanding. I believe the incident was preventable,” said Agaje.

“If CPS engaged with a community member, leader or someone who was able to understand his language so they could de-escalate, that’s exactly what we are trying to do,” said Agaje. “How they can effectively engage with people with issues and support them, providing them with in-the-moment intervention.”

Tuel’s death is still under investigation.

Selam Gayim is a nurse and a faith leader in Calgary’s Ethiopian and Eritrean community. She has already completed the training and says it left her feeling empowered.

She says the demand for mental health support is high and the risk factors in the Black community are many.

“People end up with depression, anxiety and many mental health issues. And the first responders are our church leaders and volunteers,” said Gayim.

“For someone who grew up somewhere else and came here, it’s not easy. They don’t know resources are out there,” said Gayim.

“The training equipped me well around how to communicate, how to deal with them and where to lead them,” said Gayim.

Gayim says the training is comprehensive enough for her to learn how to identify, counsel and help redirect people in crisis to the resources they need. 

She says more grassroots training and outside investment in mental health for Calgary’s Black communities could prevent a crisis from turning into a tragedy.


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