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School to contract with state to offer mental health services to new refugees

The UNC School of Social Work will soon begin contracting with the State of North Carolina to improve access to health and mental health services to refugees in the Triangle.

Starting in January, Josh Hinson, a social work clinical instructor who is leading the “Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative,” and his team of social work students will begin working closely with the state Department of Health and Human Services to provide mental health screenings and treatment to refugees in Durham, Orange and Wake counties. The team will also train agencies that are working closely with resettled immigrants. The state is funding the project with an $87,959 grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Most of the work will expand on what Hinson and his team began last year with a pilot study funded by a grant from the School’s Armfield-Reeves Innovation Fund, which found that many newly arriving refugees in Durham and Orange counties are eager for mental health assistance, including help adjusting to life in a new country. As part of the study, Hinson’s research team successfully screened 51 clients, most of whom were between the ages of 20 to 40, male and from the countries of Sudan, Iraq and Burma. All were offered individual and group therapy treatments, though some declined the services.

Overall, research has shown that refugees often experience trauma and struggle with culture shock and displacement. As a result, many face stress-related disorders, such as chronic physical illnesses, mental illnesses, and substance abuse. But historically, few public and private agencies have addressed these needs, Hinson said. Instead, most have geared efforts toward temporary services such as housing and employment.

Through the contract work with the state, the UNC project will aim to do more to connect refugee communities to needed interpreters, services and mental health treatment, Hinson said. Social work students, including Laura Garlock, who worked on the project last year, and first-year student Kevin McNamee will assist with these efforts as part of their field placements with the office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Raleigh. Abbie Heffelfinger, a research assistant and a dual degree student in UNC’s social work and public health program, will help with data analysis and outreach.

Although the work is just about to begin, Hinson hopes to continue the project over several years to give students a chance to “establish relationships with all of these agencies, to train providers and to help develop an awareness among refugees and provider communities about the need for mental health services.”

“I feel like this is a huge step in developing a system of care that just doesn’t exist right now,” he said.