ATLANTA—A team of researchers at Georgia State University is expanding the reach of a program that provides mental health support to refugees, immigrants and migrants.
The Georgia RIM Mental Health Alliance is a partnership between researchers at the GSU Prevention Research Center, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta, a local chapter of the global humanitarian organization. It was launched as a pilot program in 2022 funded by the DeKalb Board of Commissioners, and its success has laid the foundation for an expansion in Clarkston and other communities across Georgia that is being funded by state agencies.
“The early results from our evaluation of the program were extremely promising, and it was overwhelmingly welcomed by the community,” said Mary Helen O’Connor, associate professor of English at GSU’s Perimeter College and deputy director of the university’s Prevention Research Center. “The exciting part of this contract is that we can now help train other communities to create these kinds of programs to support mental health for new arrivals throughout the state.”
Escaping trauma and overcoming barriers
Clarkston is a refugee resettlement hub that is often referred to as “America’s most diverse square mile.” Approximately 50% of the city’s population is foreign born, and its residents hail from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria.
Ashli Owen-Smith, associate professor in the School of Public Health, noted that many foreign-born Clarkston residents endured traumas such as war, the loss of loved ones and displacement. Although their mental needs are high, a lack of awareness combined with language, financial and transportation barriers and the stigma associated with seeking assistance often prevents individuals from getting the help they need.
“The mental health needs of refugee, immigrant and migrant communities differ from those of U.S.-born communities because they have so many different layers of challenges,” Owen-Smith said. “In addition to the traumas they have experienced in their home countries, many spend time in multiple refugee camps before they even arrive in the United States. What happens in the post-migration context can be even more challenging as people adjust to a new country where they may not speak the language and struggle to navigate challenges in things like employment, housing, education or transportation.”
Applying lessons learned
DeKalb County allocated initial federal funding from the American Rescue Plan to enable the Mental Health Alliance to provide 204 one-on-one counseling sessions led by post-graduate students in the Clinical Mental Health Services program offered through GSU’s College of Education and Human and Development.
The IRC in Atlanta has been an essential partner in the Mental Health Alliance from the start, providing screening, interpretation and spaces for community members to meet with counselors. Justin Howell, executive director of the IRC in Atlanta, said the existing relationships the organization has with refugees, immigrants and migrants create an environment of trust that makes it easier to discuss sensitive mental health concerns.
“In many cases we’re the first contact that people have when they arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson,” Howell said. “We’re the ones who help them to the homes that we’ve prearranged for them and stocked with culturally appropriate food. We help them get their kids in school, access English classes, find jobs and start businesses. We support people with a variety of needs, and mental health support is an important extension of that.”
With the pilot program complete, the researchers are now applying what they have learned to serve more people. In addition to providing one-on-one counseling to those with the greatest needs, the expanded program will also provide group-based psychoeducation, which combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy and education.
The researchers also found that in many cases the stress and anxiety that residents experienced were rooted in issues such as housing and food insecurity, or a lack of employment opportunities. To help address these needs, the researchers are connecting with campus and community partners with the goal of adding support from social workers.
To assess the program’s effectiveness and to develop best practices that can be shared worldwide, the team will collect baseline data on measures such as depression, anxiety, social isolation and coping skills and assess how these measures change throughout the study period.
The expansion of the scope of the Mental Health Alliance is just getting started, but anonymous feedback submitted by participants in the pilot project reveals the impact the program has already had.
“Being a parent, I'm motivated to recover for the sake of my child,” one resident said. “I came out in a completely different person,” another said. Another participant said, “The tension I had and the things I was most scared of, I finally realized I should not fear them.”
Story by Sam Fahmy