UNC Refugee Wellness was a program through the UNC Social Work that promoted equitable access to mental health services for refugees in North Carolina. It started as an initiative to address two main shortages: mental health services available for refugees in the Triangle Area, and opportunities for UNC Masters of Social Work students to receive training in refugee mental health. Refugee Wellness operated as a field unit for MSW students, who provided mental health services to refugees and other immigrants with guidance and field instruction from Program Director Josh Hinson, MSW, LCSW.
Refugee Wellness partnered with resettlement agencies, as well as a number of health clinics. The program received state funding to provide mental health services to refugees in North Carolina, as well as to train mental health service providers and resettlement agencies to better respond to refugee trauma and mental health.
The UNC Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative attempted to address the mental health needs of refugees by offering mental health screenings and treatment to newly arrived refugees who were resettled by Church World Service of Durham, NC in Orange and Durham Counties during its pilot year (2013-2014).
In its second year, the project served refugees across Wake, Durham and Orange Counties, but primarily focused on building a relationship with U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Wake County. With little research data available on refugees’ mental health needs in NC, this project also collected data on the extent and severity of mental health symptoms among the sample population, as well as the acceptability and feasibility of providing treatment services.
Refugees suffer from chronic physical illnesses, mental illnesses, and substance abuse at rates much higher than the general population. Routine mental health screening and assessment does not occur in the refugee reception and placement (R&P) process. R&P agency staff referred refugees for mental health services as needed and assisted refugees in connecting with services as appropriate.
However, the lack of screening by refugee service providers limits opportunities to identify distress in refugees who do not come forward. Furthermore, few mental health providers have been identified in the NC Triangle area who have the cultural competency and training in trauma-informed treatment modalities necessary to adequately address the mental health needs of refugees. Finally, language interpretation is not a reimbursable service, and most mental health providers are unwilling to absorb the cost of paying for interpreters.