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New CNY Program Hopes To Address Refugee Mental Health Needs

Central New York Community Foundation

  Refugee resettlement programs have to cover a lot, from teaching English to job training to housing assistance. But one aspect of well being is often overlooked: mental health.

Now, a new program from Syracuse University Marriage and Family Therapy in collaboration with the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters aims to make therapy more accessible and integral when immigrating to the United States.

When Sahad Ali was in high school, he started experiencing pain he didn’t quite understand. So he turned to his father for help. He tried to describe it, but Ali's father didn't understand the pain either.

At the time, Ali was struggling with depression. In refugee communities like his own, mental health isn’t typically a priority. There also sometimes isn’t a word for a mental health condition in a refugee’s native language. 

"In my culture, people don't recognize mental health as a thing," said Ali. "Because of that, there are not a lot of words for like, schizophrenia or depression. There's not. You know, how do you explain? That's another barrier."

Refugees are about 10 times more likely than non-refugees to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and their communities face many barriers when it comes to mental healthcare. Syracuse University Professor Dr. Rashmi Gangamma received a grant from Central New York Community Foundation in order to develop a program that address this issue.

Gangamma says the necessary relationship between the therapist and the interpreter present during therapy was not reaching its full potential. So in this new program, therapists and interpreters are trained together from the ground up.

“So the way you think about therapy changes," said Gangamma. "Your style of therapy changes. It becomes more directive. You choose words carefully. So it's all those complexities that, frankly as a therapist, we're not really trained for, in any of this. Because we don't think about therapy when there is an interpreter present until we go into the field in an agency where they see non-English speaking clients."

The training will also be developed into a curriculum, so the methods can continue to be distributed and taught after this initial pilot program ends. Gangamma will collect more data, make adjustments and hopes to bring a sustainable model of mental healthcare to Central New York’ refugee community.