New Program Addresses Mental Health Needs of Refugees

Central New York is home to more than 11,000 New Americans who have rebuilt their lives here. Many turn to local nonprofits for support to establish economic and social-self-sufficiency, long after the initial resettlement period.

English-as-a-New-Language (ENL) lessons and housing assistance are primary support services refugees have access to, while mental health services are far less common. The lack of adequate, culturally responsive mental health services is problematic as many arrive from countries where large scale violence, sexual assault and persecution are prevalent.

The consequences of these complex traumatic situations linger in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, substance abuse depression, and challenges in family relationships. Access to mental health treatment is limited due to a number of factors including language barriers, stigma and lack of appropriate training of psychotherapists.

Dr. Rashmi Gangamma, associate professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Syracuse University (MFT), approached the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters (MAMI) to identify ways in which some of these barriers could be reduced.

Through a series of meetings with MAMI and members of the New American community, an idea emerged for a collaborative approach targeting two needs: training psychotherapy students to deliver culturally informed psychotherapy for refugee populations and training language interpreters to effectively interpret psychotherapy sessions with individuals, couples and families.

“Throughout our work we’ve noticed each family member has experienced different traumas and circumstances and they don’t always adapt at the same speed,” said Gangamma. “It’s important for us to spend time with each family member including parents, children and even extended family to target their specific issues.”

The Central New York Community Foundation provided MFT with a $19,760 grant to launch a free training workshop that brings together students of interpreter training from MAMI and Syracuse University psychotherapy students to learn and work collaboratively. The workshop, launched in January, 2019, will utilize the grant to continue operations over a full one-year cycle.

“I believe training in conjunction with the community’s interpreters will be crucial for both interpreters and for mental health clinicians in our community,” said Shaelise Tor, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University who has closely worked with Dr. Gangamma. “It’s been a great experience to partake in a multidisciplinary team to craft this training, because we each bring our own areas of knowledge.”

The Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Syracuse University is the only provider of free family therapy services to the community in Syracuse and has been serving Onondaga County since 1969. The department maintains relationships with refugee centers in Syracuse including the Bhutanese Community Center and RISE to provide and assess the family therapy needs of those communities.

In collaboration with MAMI, who has served Central New York since 1998, MFT hopes to build a stronger relationship between its department, interpreters, and refugee populations to ensure long-term access to mental health solutions in Syracuse.

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