JFS Perspectives

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mental Health Matters: An Inside Look at Refugee Mental Health

Mental Health Matters: An Inside Look at Refugee Mental Health

About the Refugee Mental Health Department: There is no such thing as a “typical day” for the Refugee Mental Health team. We work with men, women, and children from more than 15 countries including Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Bhutan, and Somalia. Our clients’ needs are equally as diverse. Many clients, particularly those who have only recently arrived in the United States, are facing challenges adjusting to their new lives. In a new country, everyday tasks like reading the mail or taking the bus can be a challenge, much less learning a new language and finding a job. On top of concerns about meeting basic needs, they often struggle with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Our team works to meet these individuals on their level and provide them with support to help them progress and thrive.

A Refugee Experience:

Maryam* is a 47-year-old woman from Iraq. She fled to Turkey with her three children after her husband was killed for working with the US Army. Two years ago, Maryam and two of her children moved to the US, while her eldest daughter remained in Turkey with her own family. When Maryam first arrived, she cried every day, overwhelmed with the prospect of starting over. Maryam also experienced symptoms connected to her traumatic past, including feeling very afraid in groups of people, difficulty sleeping, and chronic nightmares.

After a few months, Maryam found a job at a daycare. She enjoyed it, but continued to struggle with her mental health symptoms. After being referred by her doctor, Maryam started seeing a Jewish Family Service therapist for emotional support and practical assistance. In therapy, she learned about trauma and developed skills to reduce and manage her symptoms. She gained confidence and signed up for English classes. Due to her busy schedule and improvements in symptoms, Maryam decided to stop seeing her therapist.

However, she returned to JFS a few months later. She and her daughters had become increasingly concerned about their safety. After a friend was harassed at a bus stop and told to “go home,” Maryam said she was too scared to leave her home. She worried about her children and whether wearing a hijab was safe. She also wondered if, with the new changes in refugee admissions to the US, she would ever see her eldest daughter again or get to meet her new grandson.

Maryam’s fearfulness has improved in recent months. She shares that despite the scary things that have been happening, a lot of people have been very kind to her. She says she and her children watched the protestors supporting refugees on TV together, and that recently, a woman came up to her and told her that she was glad Maryam lives here. Maryam still worries about the future and particularly about her eldest daughter, but she prays every day that she is safe and hopes to be reunited with her one day.

Maryam’s experience is just one of many the Refugee Mental Health team hears every day in our work with refugee clients. Their circumstances may vary, however common themes of resilience and strength emerge in each as they face struggles and take steps forward to success in their newly adopted country.

*Name and some details have been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

Caroline McEaddyBy Caroline McEaddy, LCSW
Refugee Mental Health Therapist

Caroline McEaddy is a licensed clinical social worker with masters’ degrees in social work and international development. She joined Jewish Family Service in 2015 as a refugee mental health therapist. She specializes in trauma therapy, adjustment challenges, anxiety, and depression.




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