Hannah Gavin (MPP '20) Pens WaPo Piece on Refugee Mental Health Services in VA during COVID-19

Hannah Gavin recently finished her master’s degree in public policy at the University of Virginia.

The novel coronavirus crisis disproportionately affects already vulnerable populations — and Virginia’s refugees are no exception.

Refugees experience higher rates of trauma than the rest of the U.S. population related to their journeys escaping violence and persecution and having to start anew in a different country. Refugees are often removed from their old way of life and family members and other loved ones.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) issued a stay-at-home order for Virginia effective through June 10. For refugees across the state, this means limited access to the resettlement services they rely on as they integrate into their new communities.

Clinical providers, refugee resettlement organizations and other community partners work together to provide mental-health care to refugees throughout Virginia. Because many refugees come from more community-oriented societies, most of the effective mental-health interventions have been community-based programs. With social distancing, refugees are no longer able to participate in those programs.

These programs aid refugees in identifying and coping with mental-health conditions. They also promote connections among participants who can offer social support to refugees that is vital during the period of resettlement.

With social distancing and stay-at-home requirements, providers need to look to alternative ways of reaching refugee communities. Providers should also be aware of the increasing difficulties refugees may face because of having to stay at home, furthering the isolation they might have already been feeling.

There are also the added stresses of potentially being laid off or having hours reduced, having to make housing payments and taking care of children who are out of school.

Providers in Virginia are already working to address the added difficulties imposed by the coronavirus crisis and stay-at-home orders.

With so many misperceptions about identifying and treating the virus, access to reliable, accessible information about it is key to reducing anxiety and stress for refugee families. For refugees with limited English proficiency, it is important to ensure that this information about the virus is translated into multiple languages.

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Sciences has posted videos on YouTube titled “HOPE Talks” on mindfulness and other mental wellness topics.

The Virginia Refugee Healing Partnership (VRHP) — the statewide coordinator of refugee mental health services — is also working to adjust programming to online modalities. The Center for Survivors of Torture has also compiled online mental-health resources and translated materials about the coronavirus.

Providers in Vermont have tried to adapt to social distancing requirements to assist their refugee clients. A statewide task force produced a series of videos in more than a dozen languages to deliver information about the coronavirus. Refugee providers there have continued to help their clients with financial issues like filing for unemployment and providing them emergency donations.

As the pandemic continues, care providers should continue to produce new resources and convert existing resources to online platforms for refugees to access from their homes. In addition, providers should conduct check-in phone calls with their clients to inform them of these resources and to monitor how they are doing. Continuing support to these families during this time of heightened anxiety and stress will be crucial.

In addition, reporting shows xenophobia and racism are on the rise around the world because of the virus, which is why it is so vital for communities throughout Virginia to offer our refugee communities compassion and support to combat the harmful messages emanating from media outlets and political leaders.

n these unprecedented times of isolation, uncertainty and negativity, Virginia must continue to look out for its most vulnerable.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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