Prestigious awards put refugee mental health in spotlight

Human and Social Development

- Stephanie Harrington

Director of UVic’s Social Justice Studies program Nancy Clark leans against a brick wall outside.
New UVic President's Chair Nancy Clark.

A recognized leader in immigrant and refugee mental health promotion, Nancy Clark has made the wellbeing and integration of newcomers to Canada her top research priority. 

Over the next five years, her work will focus on addressing health and healthcare service gaps for people who experience forced migration and who arrive in Canada under various protection streams.

Her work meets a great and growing need: a recent World Health Organization report estimates 1 billion people worldwide are migrants, refugees and internally displaced people as a result of climate change, war and conflict. In 2021, Canada admitted a total of 60,228 refugees and protected persons as permanent residents.

But even after finding safe haven, many displaced people who come to Canada do not receive adequate health care.

Clark, director of the University of Victoria’s Social Justice Studies program and an associate professor in the School of Nursing, says refugees face myriad challenges, including finding work, adequate housing, language barriers and isolation. These factors can compound the trauma they experienced before coming to Canada, and lead to a decline in mental health.

"Evidence shows that many refugees require mental health support post-migration as a result of trauma and post-migration stress,” Clark says. “But limited knowledge exists on how mental health services work to promote refugee mental health in high income countries like Canada.”

Two prestigious awards

For her excellence in research, research-inspired teaching and contributions to the wider community, Clark has been awarded UVic’s President’s Chair Award, the university’s highest academic honour for a faculty member. Her work, which examines the intersecting effects of globalization, racialization, the environment and the social determinants of mental health for refugees and other newcomers, aligns with UVic’s Aspiration 2030 commitments around health and wellness, and social justice and equity.

Clark is a recent recipient of another prestigious accolade: She was awarded a Michael Smith Health Research (MSHR) BC Scholar award, for which she will receive $90,000 a year over the next five years to develop and conduct an evaluation of existing mental health services and supports for refugees in BC. 

The two awards complement each other, enabling Clark to build capacity in greater Victoria and beyond to deliver and promote equitable health and social care services to refugees and other communities that have experienced forced migration.

“These awards bring a spotlight to the refugee crisis and also how we might be better able to respond in terms of providing mental health services and supports for refugees,” Clark says. “It is an honor and a privilege to be able to receive these awards to make a meaningful contribution to addressing systemic inequities that refugees and other people who experience forced displacement experience.”

Commitment to community

Community engagement is at the heart of Clark’s work.

A community mental health nurse and clinician by training, Clark spent three decades working in underserved communities, including on the downtown Eastside and with people with acute mental health issues, before completing her PhD at the University of British Columbia.

Since joining UVic in 2017, she has chaired the health sector table with the Greater Victoria Local Immigrant Partnership, which whom she co-authored the Newcomers Navigating Healthcare Report. Clark has conducted numerous community-engaged research projects, building strong relationships with organizations including the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees and MOSAIC.

She is wrapping up a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project with Options Community Services and Work BC that uses art to explore Syrian refugee men’s experience of mental health and labor employment in Canada.

In late November, she is officially launching her Michael Smith Health Research BC-funded project at a Multi-Sector World Café to Promote the Mental Health of Refugees in BC, in collaboration with the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Migration Studies and the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture.

UVic students will contribute to this project. Funds from the President’s Chair Award will be used to support international and Canadian graduate and undergraduate research internships, as well as to organize a week-long summer intensive for students to promote community-based research skills.

“The recognition from the University of Victoria will provide the necessary support and leadership to put into practice UVic’s mission to create societal impact, creating a healthier and more resilient future for all,” Clark says.

Personal connection

When Clark sees statistics around the worldwide refugee crisis, these aren’t simply numbers. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be a newcomer to a strange country.

In 1974, Clark immigrated to Canada with her family from the former Yugoslavia. Her father was Palestinian and her mother Croatian. She didn’t speak English at home and her family experienced racism, so much so that her father Anglicized their Arab surname from Abdel-Bari to Bari.

Now married, Clark adopted her partner’s name Clark, which she says made it easier to integrate into higher education.

“When you do community work, it’s never disconnected from who you are and the values that you have,” Clark says.

Human and Social Development Acting Dean Jennifer White says Clark has the expertise, leadership experience, and meaningful relationships with local and international partners to make a difference to the lives of those forced to flee conflict and persecution.

“Dr. Clark’s work promises to have a substantial societal impact by addressing the social and healthcare inequities experienced by newcomers to Canada,” White says.


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Keywords: administrative, community, faculty, human and social development, staff, presidents chair, students, alumni, mental health

People: Nancy Clark

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