At a time of unprecedented global migration, Jahin Khan’s research is aiming to better understand the factors that impact mental health for migrant women, specifically on how language may play a role in psychosis.
Her work has been recognized with a 2022 Women’s Health Scholars Award from the Council of Ontario Universities. The award is one of eight across Ontario recognizing ground-breaking women’s health research.
“It was very exciting to have this recognition for my work, and what I can do,” said Khan, a master’s student in epidemiology and biostatistics at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “I hope it will also help raise awareness of the issue we are trying to address in our work.”
The risk of psychotic illness, characterized by difficulties distinguishing what is real from what is not, is more than two-times higher among certain migrant groups. Although the migration-psychosis relationship has been observed for nearly a century, the causes of this heightened risk, and the differences in risks between migrant men and women, remain unclear.
“I’m trying to identify the factors that modify psychosis risk in migrants, including those factors that increase the risk in certain groups of women but may have a different effect in men,” said Khan. Her work is supervised by Schulich Medicine & Dentistry professor Kelly Anderson, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Public Mental Health Research. “This is all very important information in order to be able to target interventions.”
She suggests one of those interventions could be language programs for higher-risk migrant women.
“There is a hypothesis that exposure to social disadvantages across one’s life can have cumulative effects on the risk of psychosis, and one source of social disadvantage for migrants is being unable to speak the language of the new country,” she said.
Emerging research suggests an association between psychosis and the ability to speak the language of the new country. Research also suggests that women grasp languages more easily than men, although female migrants to Canada are less likely to speak English when they arrive and may have fewer learning opportunities.
She says this research is especially important now during this era of unprecedented migration. According to the UN World Migration Report, there were approximately 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, which equates to 3.6 per cent of the global population.
“We’ve never had migration to this level, and so it’s especially important to focus on migrant mental health – it’s something we can’t ignore and especially for women, who are underrepresented in research,” she said.
The Women’s Health Scholars award recipients will receive scholarships of up to $50,000 to continue their research. The annual awards are funded by the Ontario government and administered by the Council of Ontario Universities.