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Refugee Mental Health and Wellness initiative expands to other N.C. counties

The UNC School of Social Work’s Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative has signed a new contract and received approval from the state to expand access to mental health services and treatment to seven other North Carolina counties where refugees have resettled in recent years.

The UNC initiative has been providing screening and treatment services in Durham, Orange and Wake counties since 2014. The latest contract will allow the project to continue that work and to reach additional clients in need in Guilford, Forsyth, Mecklenburg, Gaston, Cabarrus, Buncombe, and Craven counties.

“We hope to begin receiving new referrals from these other counties in the coming months,” said clinical assistant professor Josh Hinson, who directs the initiative. “This expansion will give us valuable information about refugees’ mental health needs across the state.”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is funding the project with an estimated $100,000 grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Most of the money will be used to support salaries for interpreters and to support the initiative’s full-time employee, program coordinator Marlow Kovach.

Hinson launched the initiative in 2013 with a goal to help resettled refugees, who research has shown 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. Historically, few public and private agencies have addressed these needs and have geared most of their efforts toward temporary services, such as housing and employment.

Through the contract work with the state, the UNC project has worked to address this gap by connecting refugee communities to needed interpreters, mental health screenings and treatment. Over the years, MSW students have worked closely with Hinson as part of their field placements to provide these services to more than 500 clients, including resettled refugees from Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Syria and Pakistan.
 Refugees from many of these same countries have resettled into the seven additional counties where the initiative will expand its reach, Hinson said.

“We are just beginning to reach out to the agencies that serve these refugees to assess their needs,” he said.

Like most other agencies focused on health and mental health, the UNC initiative has had to adjust how it delivers its services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Assessments and treatments are currently being offered remotely by telephone rather than in person, Hinson said. 

Although they often hear concerns about social isolation among their clients, those worries have exacerbated due to the pandemic, he said.

“We’re also hearing from agencies that so many refugees are having trouble finding jobs because many work in the hospitality and food service industry,” he said. “Anti-immigrant sentiment is also a huge stressor right now. So, it’s more important, now more than ever given the vulnerabilities of refugees in our communities and the ever increasing global conflict, to be able to offer these mental health services.”

Over the next year, the UNC initiative will focus on fundraising to bring in additional external money to support the project long-term, Hinson added.

“It is huge for us to be able to continue this work, and it’s huge for us to be able to explore expansion in other parts of the state,” he said.