Sept. 22, 2020

Research will assess mental wellness of immigrant workers during pandemic

Six UCalgary projects receive federal funding for social science and humanities research focused on COVID-19

Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a newcomer to a country. A place where you might not be comfortable yet with the language, where you might know very few or no people. A place where you are totally burdened in building a new life for yourself and your family from scratch. A place where you are out of your element.

And now, imagine a global pandemic strikes and the routine you did know is gone. For millions of new Canadians, COVID-19 hit them the hardest, and their mental health and wellness is taking a toll. 

Dr. Turin Tanvir Chowdhury, pictured above, specializes in understanding challenges in access to care and unmet needs faced by the socially vulnerable population of society, including new immigrants, refugees, and racial/ethnic communities, with a particular focus on solutions to make things better for the community. His research has been focused on health and wellness literacy, striving to help people learn the tools they need to help themselves.

The Cumming School of Medicine researcher was awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Engage Grant, one of the six funded projects at UCalgary for researchers working with businesses and community partners from across Canada.

Chowdhury’s project is working to identify the mental wellness needs for Canadian newcomers working in factory settings during COVID-19, with the aim to support the mental well-being for these communities.

“We know that the impacts of COVID-19 on our communities are not limited to the physical. It has upended all avenues of our daily life, from the economy, to schools, to caregiving and mental health,” says Dr. William A. Ghali, vice-president (research). “UCalgary researchers have responded in kind, with thoughtful projects that seek to find solutions to the broad array of issues our society faces today, and well into our shared future.”

Unique community needs during an unprecedented time

During COVID-19, Chowdhury’s team and community partners have been creating webinars, online workshop and community online events to make people aware of COVID-19 and mental health and wellness.

“This funding will help us to do the evidence creation while engaging the community as a partner. We will be able to summarize the evidence and bring the community together to talk about this big issue,” he says.

“I still feel like a newcomer to Canada, even 10 years later, and this project came up from my own surroundings and interactions at the grassroots level. COVID was a life-turning situation where everyone was dumbfounded — nobody knew how to handle it,” he says. “Newcomers were socioeconomically hit the most. We heard about the cases with Cargill, Superstore, and Walmart — these people might not have been first responders, but they were among the front lines of service in the community.”

Chowdhury explains that the added complexity of gender-cultural norms in the communities, which can view mental health and wellness as a weakness, limited access to mental health services. His informal observations saw an uptick in domestic disturbance, frustration and friction between parents and kids.

“Stress and anxiety about what will happen next, with businesses and stores closing, and unclear continued government support really created an unhealthy situation for mental well-being. These are people who can’t afford to take a break for their health, and don’t want to lose their jobs if they aren’t working,” he says.

Opening the door to discussing mental health and wellness

“COVID-19 might open the conversation about mental wellness in our newcomer communities,” says Chowdhury. “It would be a welcome outcome for me — that we talk about our mental well-being more openly and constructively after this.

These discussions were not happening before, as mental health and wellness always has been a stigmatized issue.

Mental health is an issue with newcomers, but it is one of the lowest priorities. He explains that for many, there may be a reservation about appearing weak. For the men in the family, they may see themselves as the provider who needs to be strong. For the women, they may prioritize others ahead of themselves. But in the end, the entire family is suffering.

“It makes it important that we do our due diligence in acknowledging the gender-cultural differences that are brought to the table, especially in the solutions we find.”

Embedding in the community vital to long-term research success

Chowdhury calls this community mental health and well-being research program an ‘infinite game,’ something that goes beyond a one-time research project. He explains that the success of this research is pinned on the embeddedness of the team itself. It cannot be ‘parachute-in, parachute-out,’ which has been the more conventional research style in many areas. Community-engaged, -centred, and -based research works to build understanding and prevention — empowering communities to learn and do things themselves.

“We need to build trust and relationships. It has to be us working with them for the long term,” he says. “From high above, everyone looks the same. The closer you get, you can see that people are different and need different things. We know that one size doesn’t fit all.

“Through this work, we will be able to help the broader population. It’s very easy to resort to checking the box, but if we make a habit of being in the community, these boxes are already checked when you start.”

Partnership Engage grants

In response to the early phases of the pandemic crisis, the latest Partnership Engage Grants competition included a special call to address COVID-19-related research. These are one-year grants, with a maximum value of $25,000. The UCalgary recipients of this funding are:

  • Dr. Heather Boynton, PhD, Faculty of Social Work: COVID-19: Children's Intervention Services: Exploring the Lived Experience of Alberta Children's Services' Social Workers during COVID-19
  • Dr. Tanvir Chowdhury, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine – Family Medicine & Community Health Sciences: COVID-19. Identifying Mental Wellness Needs for Racial/Ethnic Minority Factory workers During and Post- Public Health Emergencies: To Inform COVID-19 Response
  • Dr. Naomi Lightman, PhD, Faculty of Arts: Caring During the COVID-19 Crisis: Immigrant Women Working in Long-Term Care in Calgary
  • Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD, Faculty of Arts: The Caregiver Online PsychoEducation (COPE) Project: A Collaborative Response to the Increased Demand for Child Trauma Services due to COVID-19
  • Dr. Lindsay Tedds, PhD, School of Public Policy: COVID-19 and The Financial Crises in the City of Calgary: What have Been the Impacts on the City's User Levies and Property Tax Revenues and What Lessons Can be Learned
  • Dr. Rahat Zaidi, PhD, Werklund School of Education: Immigrant Families at a Standstill: Navigating Resettlement During COVID-19

Turin Chowdhury is an assistant professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences in the Cumming School of Medicine. He is also a member of the university’s O'Brien Institute for Public Health and the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Sheri Madigan is a member of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.