Coping with COVID-19: Mental Health Impacts on Immigrants and Refugees
Updated: Sep 9
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all, but it has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable communities. COVID-19 has taken a significant toll on the finances, health, and mental wellbeing of vulnerable groups. Refugees and immigrants are two such groups who have been hit the hardest, as many are of low socioeconomic status, undocumented, may not have health insurance, may face language and technology barriers to healthcare and education, and are excluded from government relief packages. Additionally, many work in industries, such as meat production, that put them at a higher risk of infection.
Like most minority groups, immigrants and refugees are underrepresented in research. The research that does exist indicates a high prevalence of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as pre/post migration trauma and stressors. It is not surprising that recent studies have shown the pandemic has intensified these symptoms. What is surprising, however, is the degree to which the stress of the economic fallout has surpassed the fear of the virus itself. This could be explained by the way that society disadvantages refugee and immigrant families in a way that forces them to focus on and prioritize economic survival over mental wellbeing. This, coupled with the stigma around mental illness that exists in these communities, prevents many individuals from seeking the treatment and care they need.
Mental health providers across the country have converted to telehealth services in an effort to address this need amidst a pandemic. Recent studies have presented several key challenges of the use of telehealth with immigrant and refugee clients. These barriers include access to technology, literacy, and privacy in large or multi-family homes. Working with this population during COVID-19 has also emphasized the existing inequality around health, education, and economic opportunity as a result of systemic racism and xenophobia in America.
In my own work as a social worker and mental health therapist, I believe it is important to pay attention to the structural and socioeconomic realities of the clients I work with, especially if they are part of a marginalized group. It is important to be aware of the challenges these populations face and to intentionally make efforts address these challenges in providing services, so that the needs of clients do not go unmet. When basic needs are unmet, therapeutic interventions are shown to be less effective. We must acknowledge the barriers and do what we can to help on the individual level, as well as work make change at the policy level, while also recognizing the resiliency and strength it has taken our clients to survive in the face of adversity.
Endale, T., St. Jean, N., & Birman, D. (2020). COVID-19 and refugee and immigrant youth: A community-based mental health perspective. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy.