Addressing the mental health and wellness of refugees is a critical challenge after resettlement, according to panelists at an event hosted yesterday in Lohrfink Auditorium by the student refugee advocacy group No Lost Generation.
The panel included four professionals in mental health, social work and refugees: Georgetown Institute for the Study of International Migration research professor Elzbieta Gozdziak, clinical social worker Goli Bellinger, the George Washington University art therapy program director Heidi Bardot and GWU medical professor Amir Afkhami.
Gozdziak said for most refugees, the primary requirement for mental wellness is full legal status and decent living conditions.
“Proper immigration status is the best mental health intervention for refugees, or for anyone,” Gzodziak said. “The second would be a job. A good job that provides for self-sufficiency, that kind of stuff. Everything else is secondary or tertiary.”
Afkhami stressed the importance of not overlooking the small number of refugees who have serious pathologies that need attention.
“We shouldn’t pathologize everything, but if something is a pathology, it’s a pathology,” Afkhami said. “Major depressive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, all of these things can be just as debilitating as the psychotic disorders we typically associate with chronic debilitating effects.”
According to Gozdziak, some of those involved in refugee and immigrant policy, though well-intentioned, succumb to negative and unrealistic stereotypes of the refugees they serve. She recalled one social worker suggesting the Muslim husbands they would work with might beat their wives.
“Before we start talking about helping, we have to examine our own prejudices,” Gozdziak said. “Before we worked with the refugees directly, we had to deal with our workers who haven’t seen a refugee, haven’t pinched a refugee, haven’t been a refugee themselves.”
If there is anything social workers need to know about refugees, according to Bardot, it is that they have all survived by displaying resilience.
“It comes down to one aspect of resiliency that will get you through the traumas of war and makes you that survivor,” Bardot said. “If you label someone with that victim mentality, you take them out of a role of control, it’s inevitable that they become a victim. But if you treat them with respect, and you respect and honor that strength and resiliency, it allows them to enter the world very differently.”
Afkhami said many of the difficulties facing resettled refugees when they come to the United States are not unique to their refugee status, but simply extensions of policy weaknesses that affect marginalized citizens as well.
“You look at Washington, D.C., east of the Anacostia, you have the same access challenges for populations just a few miles away from this auditorium,” Afkhami said. “While we have this global outlook, usually we forget those right in front of us.”
Afkhami said students should advocate for health programs that would help newly settled refugees and lifelong citizens alike.
“It’s very easy to get discouraged in this political environment,” Afkhami said. “But all of you have the power to be advocates, and if there’s one thing you can do it’s really to advocate for increased access, increased funding for mental health care, which is something we desperately need in these times when this is an area that is under assault.”