By Peggy Fulda, Social Worker/Case Manager, Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative
In honor of January’s Mental Health Awareness month, we thought it would be pertinent to showcase some of the important work we are doing as part of Philadelphia’s Refugee Mental Health Collaborative (PRMHC.) In many ways, mental health and wellness is the perfect frame with which to celebrate our holistic approach to community mental health work. In our work with refugee families, we work towards mental health by supporting emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual well-being. Our work supports refugee mental health and draws on each of these dimensions.
The PRMHC draws its philosophy from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) definition of “wellness.” We believe that wellness is more than just the absence of illness. We believe that mental wellness entails “… the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness.”
The PRMHC, led by Liberty’s Lutheran Children and Family Service, takes a multi-pronged approach to refugee mental health work including the help of partners across the city – resettlement agencies, mental health providers, physicians and arts organizations working to link refugees to culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health care. We work daily with HIAS-PA, NSC, the Intergenerational Center at Temple University, Nemours Pediatric, Belmont, the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Build A Bridge programs. Together we serve refugee mental wellness and cultural adjustment needs, both through direct services offered at our community center location on South 7th Street and on a systems-level through work with health and social service providers. At our storefront offices on South 7th Street we are fortunate to offer free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes daily, women’s mentoring groups twice weekly, middle school arts education courses, art therapy sessions, homework assistance, high school arts and culture programs. The PRMHC also host traditional dance groups from the Burmese and Nepali refugee communities. On the policy level, we work with our partners, the city’s Department of Behavior Health and Intellectual Disabilities, and other refugee serving organizations to best improve the refugee experience across Philadelphia and beyond.
From the outside, it might seem like ESL instruction and the arts have little to do with refugee mental health. However, for many refugee families who have experienced severe trauma, the concept of talk therapy and other traditional mental health treatments simply doesn’t translate because it wasn’t a cultural norm in their country. PRMHC programming approaches mental health and well-being through cultural preservation. We work to bolster refugee communities by facilitating opportunities for refugees to practice their traditions, succeed academically, teach their children and grandchildren their home language, reduce isolation, and build connections and relationships outside of the home. Becoming a refugee and fleeing one’s home country under extreme duress can be deeply alienating and disorienting. PRMHC activities tackle refugee mental health by creating a space where refugee culture can be both celebrated and integrated into the local community.
I’ve been involved with immigrant and refugee mental health work since 2005, joining the PRMHC in July of 2013. As a Temple University graduate student in clinical social work and global public health, cross-cultural mental health work is a personal and professional passion of mine. From a number of perspectives I’ve seen how crucial cultural competency is to successful mental health work; I’m committed to our work with PRMHC as a means to help provide culturally resonant and holistic mental health care that makes sense to our refugee families. I feel lucky to be a part of the Collaborative as the perfect outlet for both my clinical and international interests.
At the PRMHC we know that cultural preservation and social connections are crucial not only for refugee mental health but also for successful resettlement and integration into their new American lives. We know that children who remain connected to their home language, cultures, and traditions are more successful in school and have improved behavioral health outcomes. Participants in our programs encounter Americans who are interested in their story, proud of their journey, and invested in their future. We hope that you’ll support us in our work and visit soon!
Click here for more information on The Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative or call 215-424-3741 ext. 254