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Assessing the “healthy immigrant effect” in mental health: Intra- and inter-cohort trends in mood and/or anxiety disorders


Background — The healthy immigrant effect implies that, at the time of immigration, new immigrants are typically healthier than the Canadian-born population. Furthermore, this health advantage fades the longer cohorts of immigrants remain in the host country.

Methods — Most studies assessing the healthy immigrant effect rely on strong, untestable assumptions to extract unique effects for length of stay (LOS) (i.e., how long an immigrant has been in a host country), period (i.e., year of observation), and cohort (i.e., year of immigration). Rather than attempting to parse out separate effects for LOS, period, and cohort, we adopt a descriptive, cohort-centric approach to study immigrant mental health, which examines intra- and inter-cohort trends, that is, joint LOS-period and cohort-period parameters, respectively. Although intra-cohort trends show how immigrants’ mental health change with LOS across periods, inter-cohort trends reveal how the mental health of successive cohorts of immigrants differ across time periods. To provide a thorough assessment of the healthy immigrant effect, we use both survey and administrative data on cohorts of Canadian immigrants from 2003 to 2013.

Results — The survey data reveal that mental health declines steeply (i.e., there is an increase in mood and/or anxiety disorders) within and across immigrant cohorts, while the administrative data shows little overall change in mental healthcare utilization within and across cohorts. The divergent results may reflect issues related to barriers in access to mental health services because the administrative data, which are based on healthcare utilization, do not the capture the increase in mental disorders seen in the survey data.

Conclusion — This study highlights the benefit of a cohort-based approach to assess the healthy immigrant effect as it pertains to mental health as well as the importance of using different types of data, which may be measuring different aspects of immigrant mental health and healthcare utilization.



Mason J, Laporte A, McDonald T, Kurdyak P, Fosse E, de Oliveira C. Soc Sci Med. 2023; Nov 8 [Epub ahead of print].

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