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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

WashU: Schools, Communities Can Play Key Role in Mental Health for Adolescent Refugees

Youths resettling in the U.S. from war-torn areas of the Middle East and North Africa can be helped by school- and community-based mental health and psychosocial supports, according to research from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

Researchers held focus-group discussions with youths from Iraq, Syria and Sudan who had resettled in Austin, Texas, and Harrisonburg, Virginia, two cities with relatively high numbers of refugees. They also interviewed caregivers and key informants, including teachers, service providers and staff from community-based organizations.

Resettled children not only struggle with potential psychological distress resulting from repeated exposure to violence, family separation and the loss of their social supports, but also face challenges as they adapt to new social norms in their new communities, including prejudice and discrimination as outsiders and a stigma toward mental health treatment from within their own communities.

Some adults and youths described symptoms such as depressive feelings, anxiety, sleeplessness, and aggressive behavior. The research revealed promising efforts to help, including sheltered instruction, school-parent collaboration, peer support programs, social and emotional learning initiatives and integrated mental health centers.

“While this study underscores the resilience of newcomers and the value of local support systems, it also reflects the importance of investment in schools, mental health systems, and resettlement programs that can enable newcomers to achieve their full potential,” wrote the study’s senior author, Dr. Lindsay Stark, associate professor at the Brown School.

The study was published October 21 in Conflict and Health.

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