Blog: Housing and Mental Health in Black Communities

By: Karen Umurerwa, Expert Steering Team Member

Housing and Mental Health in Black Communities

In 2012, my family made the hard decision to move from Rwanda to Canada. The transition from my homeland to Canada was the toughest process I could have gone through. Canada was a land of opportunities, but it was one that was completely foreign to us as we had no friends or family that could ease our integration.

Upon our arrival, we were placed in a family shelter in which we stayed for several months. Although the shelter offered some stability, it was a grim, crowded and highly restrictive place to call home. Not only was the environment completely foreign in every aspect but we also had a significant language barrier to overcome. I was only comfortable in my native language, and I barely grasped the basic principles of French or English. 

Seven months later, we were moved to an Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) neighbourhood. Through several programs I was able to slowly bridge my language gap and start interacting with my peers. The integration process would have been impossible if it wasn’t for the access we had to community resources. We lived in the same building as a community centre, and this made all the difference for us. The programs offered by my community housing, the therapists and the social workers helped me to create social connections, opportunities for work, meaningful activities, and community participation.

Last week, I had the chance to interview Myriam Georges-Estigène, a Registered Psychotherapist running her own private practice with a focus on mental health. She is also engaged in developing a mental health platform called Thoughtful Therapist. During our discussion on housing and mental health, Myriam highlighted the significant link between housing stability and mental health results. Unstable housing situations can profoundly impact a person’s mental health. When people lack stable housing, they face constant stress, uncertainty, and insecurity about where they will sleep or live. This chronic instability can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness. Moreover, unstable housing often means inadequate access to resources such as healthcare, social support, and education, further exacerbating mental health challenges. Therefore, addressing housing stability is not only crucial for fulfilling basic needs but also essential for promoting mental health and overall well-being in individuals and communities.

Growing up in the Black community, I remember the negative cultural connotations associated with therapy. Therapy carried a stigma rooted in historical distrust of mental health systems, worries over confidentiality, and the perception that seeking therapy indicated weakness. My discussion with Myriam shed light on specific challenges Black communities encounter in accessing mental health support, including financial barriers like lacking insurance, which significantly restrict many from essential services. Furthermore, the shortage of therapists of colour, particularly those from Black backgrounds, exacerbates the issue. The scarcity of culturally competent mental health professionals impedes effective communication and understanding, thus limiting access and quality of care for individuals within Black communities. 

As we come to the end of Black History Month, let's unite as a community to combat the stigma surrounding therapy. We can achieve this by educating our fellow community members, connecting them with resources, arranging culturally sensitive workshops, and launching awareness campaigns that underscore the significance of seeking assistance for mental health concerns. Reflecting on my own journey of moving to Canada in 2012, I recognize the privilege of having stable housing and tangible resources at my disposal, which may not be the reality for many newcomers.

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