San Diego’s Refugee and Immigrant Mental Health Program is a model in the US

Nyaduoth Gatkuoth is the daughter of refugees from South Sudan. She was looking for help and a support system in San Diego and found it in a group called “Girl Talk.”

“Having Girl Talk, it’s kind of like … not necessarily going to a therapist, but it’s kind of my therapy in a way,” Gatquot said.

The monthly support group is for women from South Sudan.

“These are women I see myself in. So basically it’s kind of a mirror experience when I’m in that space,” she said. “I see people who are me and I can empathize with what they’re going through and empathize with them.”

Jacob Aere

A therapy room at License to Freedom has pink walls and a large couch with colorful pillows, July 7, 2022.

Girl Talk is organized by the United Women of East Africa, known as UWEAST. Compassion and empathy are only part of what is offered through the group, according to Gatkuoth.

“They talk about housing issues, they talk about food insecurity issues and so on and so forth,” she said. “So what I think this program has done: It’s expanded what mental health means.”

UWEAST is one of several agencies in San Diego Refugee CoalitionThe Behavioral Health Initiative. It is the first peer-based, non-clinical mental health program to provide free, specialized services for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

The counselors in the program speak 13 different languages ​​and are all refugees or immigrants.

“People feel comfortable talking to someone who can understand the culture, who speaks their languages,” said License to Freedom executive director Dilkhwaz Ahmed. Her organization has taken the lead in providing mental health services to refugees in San Diego.

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A poster discussing domestic violence hangs on the wall of the office of License to Freedom Executive Director Dilkhwaz Ahmed, July 7, 2022.

In the past year alone, the behavioral health initiative has helped over 2,000 people.

Even with the increase in help-seekers, the stigma surrounding seeking mental health care is still very prevalent in the communities that serve these groups.

Promised Land of the Karen Organization of San Diego explains, “For our parents and our older generation, they never really thought about their mental health when they were in refugee camps. They really think about survival and other things. So it’s a new thing – you move here to the United States and then it’s a different battle, a battle mentally.

Behavioral health specialist Niamal Wall counsels refugees and facilitates the Girl Talk support group.

“I think they’re assimilating every day, and even though a lot of South Sudanese refugees have been here since the early 1990s, it’s still like a daily struggle for them,” she said.

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An open purple brochure details the various services at License to Freedom, 7 July 2022.

The initiative offers one-on-one consultations, educational seminars and navigation to essential resources.

“Every week I can meet anybody,” Wall said. “I can meet older people who don’t really speak much English, and I can meet young women and just help them with advice and talk about everything.”

These intentional discussions around mental health and resources with people from similar backgrounds make a difference for young people like Gatkuoth.

“I lost a sister earlier this year and just to have that … safe space to be able to talk about what you’re going through and just have people with that shared experience means a lot and it’s very important to me , ” she said.

Wall said the Girl Talk model is starting to grow and more South Sudanese women in the U.S. are coming together to talk about their mental health.

It happened almost by accident, as a result of turning to online group therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been able to expand ‘Girl Talk’ to other states outside of California. There are mostly South Sudanese in the Midwest — like Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota. So we were able to reach more young women,” Wall said.

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Jacob Aere

A room at License to Freedom is set up for group therapy with floor cushions and Middle Eastern designs, July 7, 2022.

License to Freedom Executive Director Amhead said expanding the refugee coalition’s impact is exactly what she wants to see for the Behavioral Health Initiative.

“Other organizations can come and take some of the lessons about what works and why this program is successful,” she said, hinting at the secret to their growth: “It’s because it comes from the people themselves.”

For those worried about seeking help, Gatkuoth has a message.

“No matter how small your problem is, just reach out,” she said. “Tell someone and there will always be someone willing to give you an open ear and an open heart to take in whatever you have to say, but also to be able to help you with whatever you’re going through.”

Behavioral Health Initiative services are free and people seeking help can learn more at sandiegorefugeecommunities.org.

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