“If you talk to clinical providers in the community, they’ll tell you mental health is the most pressing burden we have in the community right now,” said Mary Helen O’Connor, associate director of the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Georgia State University.
Earlier this month, the PRC placed five recent graduates of GSU’s master’s in mental health counseling program with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta, a local resettlement agency. Each of the counselors works a weekly five-hour shift, where they provide direct care to members of the refugee community in conjunction with IRC social workers. Graduates are supervised by a licensed counseling supervisor and a GSU Counseling Educator.
“Basically we said, rather than waiting for people to be in acute crisis to intervene, how can we integrate mental health into the resettlement process itself? said Justin Howell, executive director of IRC in Atlanta.
The initiative was funded by a $100,000 federal grant from the DeKalb County government.
According to O’Connor, who worked at the Clarkston Refugee Shelter in DeKalb County for nearly two decades, such investment in refugee-specific mental health services is unprecedented.
In the past, she explained, access to care was extremely restricted, with cost, language and transport barriers all playing a role. The only local providers were Positive Growth, a Clarkston-based nonprofit mental health center, and the Center for Victims of Torture. But both organizations have waiting lists and limited eligibility: Positive Growth generally only sees patients with Medicaid or private health insurance, and the Center for Victims of Torture only provides counseling to survivors of torture. torture.
The limited supply of care means that significant mental health issues have not been addressed.
“We know that the prevalence of PTSD in refugee populations is over 80%, compared to 8% in the general population,” said Ashli Owen-Smith, a behavioral scientist at GSU’s School of Public Health. “So we know this is a community that desperately needs mental health services, and they just aren’t available.”
“A Double Dip”
Refugee advocates say Afghan families evacuated to the United States following the Taliban takeover are likely to be at greater risk of mental health issues than previous refugee populations.
This is because their trips to the United States were particularly rushed and unsettling. First, there was the upheaval at Kabul airport and across the country when the US-backed government fell. Then there were the several months that many evacuees had to spend living on US military bases across the country before settling in US communities. Once in their final destinations, the evacuees ran into an overwhelmed relocation apparatus. And to make matters worse, the ability of Afghan newcomers to stay in the United States is shrouded in uncertainty, as most were allowed to enter the country through a temporary parole program that does not pave the way for them to permanent residence.
“It’s very disturbing. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” O’Connor said. “Everything that happened with Afghanistan is completely different.”
According to O’Connor, research indicates that stress among refugee communities is highest after migration rather than before, even for those fleeing violent situations in their home countries. These are the challenges that come with trying to succeed in the United States as a foreigner, rebuilding a new life from scratch, and navigating a new culture and language.
This adjustment is why, “for all refugees and migrants, after they’ve been here for a year, their mental health kind of dips,” O’Connor said. “And I kind of feel like the Afghans have taken a double dip.”
O’Connor hopes the PRC’s pilot program placing young therapists in Atlanta-area refugee communities will be the first of many innovative projects aimed at filling a long-standing gap in care.
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