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Are You Serving Afghan Clients with Mental and Behavioral Health Needs? A New National Program Can Help

In Switchboard’s FY23 needs assessment, assisting clients experiencing emotional distress ranked as one of the highest needs for training and technical assistance. Megan Rafferty, Switchboard’s training officer specializing in mental health and wellness, spoke with Rayhana Rahim, PhD, on this topic. Dr. Rahim is Program Manager for the Post-Resettlement Behavioral Health Support Program for Afghan Arrivals, a new initiative implemented by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) to support the mental and behavioral health needs of Afghan newcomers across the U.S 

An Urgent Need for Support

As the United States resettlement community has stepped up to support Afghan newcomers, meeting their mental and behavioral health needs has emerged as a significant challenge. Afghanistan has a long history of war and conflict, during which its population has been exposed to countless potentially traumatic events. While most Afghans are remarkably resilient, the compounding effects of this chronic trauma exposure, in addition to the added stressors of the resettlement process, create an urgent need for mental and behavioral health support.  

The sudden arrival of Afghan newcomers (compounded by the preexisting COVID-19 pandemic) has highlighted the limited capacity of existing behavioral and mental health systems. Where mental health care is available, mainstream services are often ill-equipped to serve newcomers. Many general practitioners do not have an in-depth understanding of the refugee experience, knowledge of newcomers’ cultural beliefs, or access to interpretation. In places that do have specialized services for refugee clients, lengthy waitlists can prevent potential clients from getting timely care.  

There are many cultural factors that can create barriers for Afghans needing behavioral health services, such as sharing their innermost struggles with non-family members. What we consider standard best practices—like speaking to a qualified professional—may seem unusual to many immigrants and refugees. – Dr. Rayhana Rahim 

Meeting the Needs of the Afghan Community

This December, with funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) is launching the Post-Resettlement Behavioral Health Support Program for Afghan Arrivals. This program will increase access to behavioral health services for Afghan Placement and Assistance Program (APA)-eligible clients throughout the United States. USCRI and its partners will provide a novel interdisciplinary approach with culturally tailored, trauma-informed psychosocial services through four main program components: 

  1. Multilingual 24-hour Helpline – This 24-hour helpline staffed by workers speaking Dari, Pashto, and English will provide on-demand counseling services and connect callers to appropriate community referrals 
  2. Crisis Response Team – A multidisciplinary team consisting of counselors, psychiatrists, and social workers will respond to acute behavioral health crisis situations, either virtually or via in-person site visits 
  3. Telehealth Services These services will give APA-eligible clients access to culturally informed, linguistically accessible primary and behavioral health care services for up to three months (extensions available upon request) 
  4. Community Behavioral Health Field Teams – USCRI will place behavioral health teams to provide in-person support services in four states identified as either “high-need” or “low-capacity”: Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington 

These four program areas were intentionally designed to fill in gaps in services and mitigate resettlement challenges across the local, state, and national levels. According to Dr. Rahim, “[T]hese program components are designed with long-term community impact in mind by delivering culturally tailored community support interventions to increase resilience and capacity within the U.S. Afghan diaspora.”  

All four program areas will be staffed with Afghan American service providers to the greatest extent possible. Throughout Operation Allies Welcome, USCRI deployed teams of Afghan Americans to provide behavioral health and psychosocial support to Afghan clients across the Safe Havens where the newcomers were initially housed. These experiences highlighted the benefits of having members of Afghan communities provide these essential services, including increased uptake of services and enhanced rapport building, in addition to the obvious benefits of linguistic and cultural compatibility.

How to Connect Clients with Support

Service providers can email AfghanMH@uscrimail.org to make a referral or request assistance. Any APA-eligible client can reach the helpline by calling (800) 615-6514. Helpline workers will respond to callers in English, Dari, or Pashto 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will connect them to services within any of the four program areas described above. More information will be coming soon to the USCRI website, refugees.org 

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