JVS program helps refugees learn to navigate health care system

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JVS helps resettle approximately 450-500 refugees to Kansas City annually. Refugees are legally allowed to enter the U.S. for permanent resettlement after proving persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion in their country of origin.

Financial assistance from the U.S. federal government ends after three months. New arrivals are expected to quickly become self-sufficient. These economic pressures, pre-migration trauma, and the challenge of resettlement often cause adjustment problems for newcomers (e.g., AP, 2010).

Many times refugee clients are forced to have children interpret for them, which can be traumatic for the child to have to learn what their parent has experienced.

Data on immigrant/refugee health show increased diagnoses such as PTSD and major depression that are associated with pre-migration experiences of torture, starvation, and loss of family members (e.g., Fazel, Wheeler, & Danesh, 2005). Depression rates up to 50 percent are reported among newly immigrated women (McNaughton et al., 2004). Difficulties associated with post-migration adjustment include discrimination, financial struggles, and tension in the family unit (e.g., Dow, 2011). Many refugees have limited knowledge and experience with medical systems and doctors, which creates struggles in accessing services to get their physical and mental health needs met.

The Social Work Program at JVS offers intensive case management and therapy services to help address current barriers and past trauma. Intensive case management services will work with the entire family to complete assessments and assist in making what is referred to as service plans, which are agreed-upon goals to be accomplished during a client’s time with the social worker. Many of these goals are based around addressing mental and physical health needs.

The social workers attend medical appointments with clients to teach them how to request and use interpreters, as well as assist in navigating the U.S. medical system. Social workers work closely with clients to access mental health services which include therapy services at JVS or psychiatric services through outside providers.

One of the biggest barriers to refugees accessing mental health services are lack of interpreters, lack of knowledge by a client on how to request one, and lack of knowledge by the provider on using interpreters.

Many times refugee clients are forced to have children interpret for them, which can be traumatic for the child to have to learn what their parent has experienced. This sets the child up for learning about a specific trauma their parent experienced or reading parents’ medical discharge paperwork, which can make the child feel responsible for assisting their parent in continuing to access services or medications.

Social workers spend a lot of time teaching both the parent and child how to advocate to get access to an interpreter and becoming more empowered in their own health care. This is a sustainable model for long-term medical and mental health care for refugees.

Once they have the skills and knowledge to navigate these systems, they are much more likely to maintain their own mental or physical health care. With their interpreters fully and carefully explaining both their health situations to a doctor, and a doctor’s treatment plans and preventive care, refugees can begin to feel more comfortable when talking to health care providers.

To learn more about refugee resettlement and Jewish Vocational Services, upcoming events, or to get involved, visit our website at http://www.jvskc.org/

If you have any questions, please contact social work manager Sarah Cirese-Payton, LMSW at scpayton@jvskc.org.

Please read the companion blog post about refugee children and how JVS helps them adjust to life in a new country.

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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at jsykes@hcfgkc.org.


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