BEGANS AS A FASINATION WITH HOW CULTURE impacts on mental health has
turned into a quiet but determined activism on behalf of immigrants, refugees
and other cultural minorities across Canada.
In the process, Professor
Morton Beiser has gained widespread recognition from policymakers,
academics, the media and many immigrant communities as one of the
leading authorities on culture and mental health.
A professor of psychiatry
at U of T, Beisers work is a blend of psychiatry, sociology and
epidemiology that proves useful when investigating social issues linked
to cultures in transition. Whether focused on Cambodian refugees or Native
Canadians, Beisers research explores the challenges of integrating
into the Canadian cultural mosaic.
As head of the Culture,
Community & Health program at U of T and the university-affiliated
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Beiser leads a multi-disciplinary
team that includes psychologists, medical sociologists, epidemiologists,
demographers, an anthropologist, a nurse, doctoral students and post-doctoral
fellows. The program has attracted more than $6 million in external research
funding including grants from the former Medical Research Council
of Canada, now the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and
the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada
and several senior scientist awards.
roles at U of T and at the Toronto Centre of Excellence for Research on
Immigration & Settlement (CERIS see sidebar) are the culmination
of a career that has taken him all over North America and to Paris and
His fascination with
how culture interacts with mental health began
during his training in psychiatry at Duke University in the 1960s. During
those early days of the civil rights struggle, he was able to observe
psychological effects of racism on both its perpetrators and its victims.
Later, as a junior faculty member at Harvard, he carried out studies
in Africa which illustrated the health-damaging effect of racial
Since then, Beiser
has engaged in studies that explore challenges faced by cultural communities
in Canada. His 10-year study of the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees
who arrived in Canada in the 1980s culminated in his recent and acclaimed
book, Strangers at the Gate: The Boat Peoples First
Ten Years in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1999).
Although results from
this study have appeared among Beisers more than 150 scientific
publications, Strangers at the Gate presents a bit of a departure. Through
a unique mix of statistics and case studies, this groundbreaking work
challenges stereotypes about immigrants, and presents the information
in a form that is accessible to the general public.
His work with the
Southeast Asian refugees is just one of Beisers many projects.
Another is a series of studies on First Nations schoolchildren in Canada
and the U.S. to uncover reasons for differences in mental health, self-esteem
and school achievement as compared to non-native children. Beisers
plans include a study of the health and development of immigrant and refugee
children in Canada. "This study is very important," he says,
"because it aims to fill in the cultural gaps of a similar study
by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Canada focused on Canadian kids
is rapidly gaining interest in immigrant communities. Recently, both the
Tamil and Ethiopian communities in Toronto asked Beiser to study their
unique challenges in Canada. "The fact that these communities came
to me is a very important turning point," says Beiser. "Theyre
taking the initiative to push for more attention to their mental health
needs, and I think thats terrific."
Asked if he believes
his achievements have helped shape public policy, Beiser chuckles quietly
and shrugs. "In the end, I dont know what really makes a difference.
Its difficult to get policymakers attention and help them
understand that this is a long-term investment that has no
But he sees hope in
the sometimes surprising ways that academic research can have an impact,
citing the example of U
of T historian Harold Tropers book, None is Too Many, which chronicles
Canadas refusal to admit Jewish refugees prior to and in the early
days of World War II.
he recalls, "in the midst of the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia,
employment and immigration minister Ron Atkey was given a draft of this
book for some weekend reading. After reviewing it he said, I dont
want to be another minister who said, none is too many and he made
the decision to admit an unprecedented 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees
to Canada." Putting this episode in perspective, Beiser reflects,
"Ill try anything that might make an impact on policy. Books.
Radio. Whatever it takes. As long as the message is honest and based on
real data and facts."