The Boston College School of Social Work will assist efforts to provide mental health and family support for resettled Afghans in the United States, in partnership with a major resource hub for refugee service providers funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

BCSSW’s Research Program for Childhood Adversity will collaborate with the University of Illinois-Chicago in assessing Afghan families’ needs, strengths, and challenges as they build new lives in the U.S. and identifying family support strategies that refugee service organizations can utilize. RPCA and UIC also will share findings about the psychosocial consequences of war and forced migration on children as well as the evidence for multi-level interventions, and provide guidance for culturally informed practice with Afghan families.

Such responses are vital, according to the researchers, at a time when more than 85,000 Afghans are in the U.S. after being evacuated from their country in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, and many others are expected to arrive in the coming months—40 percent of them minor-aged children and adolescents. The acute trauma and dislocation endured by the refugees raises the risk of poor family functioning and mental health and psychosocial problems among resettled children.

Resettlement itself brings additional sources of stress and anxiety, note the researchers, such as economic pressures, legal status, access to education and health care, and the overall challenge of adjusting to life in a new country and markedly different society. This tends to compound familial challenges, creating the mental health risks for children. 

Theresa Betancourt

Theresa Betancourt (Lee Pellegrini)

“Afghan families and communities demonstrate a tremendous amount of strength which we hope to illuminate,” said BCSSW Salem Professor in Global Practice Theresa Betancourt, who is heading the team with UIC Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Mary Bunn, director of the UIC Global Mental Health Research and Training Program. “We also want to help ensure that evidence-based services are available to help promote child and family mental health with much more of a prevention focus.”

The BCSSW-UIC project is being supported through Switchboard, a project of the International Rescue Committee that is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Switchboard offers a library of learning resources, an online evidence database, a range of self-paced e-learning courses, regular live learning opportunities, and on-demand technical assistance for ORR-funded organizations.

BCSSW and UIC have worked together in researching mental health and family support needs of Afghan refugees in Maine and recently-arrived evacuees at Ft. McCoy, Wisc. These collaborations, along with others involving community partners serving Somali Bantu and Bhutanese refugee populations, will be the foundation for the new project, which centers on promoting mental health in Afghan families with children aged 10-17 and their caregivers. The team will interview refugees and service providers to get a fuller understanding of behavioral or mental health challenges and issues, as well as the strengths and resources, that typify Afghan families’ resettlement experiences.

The BCSSW-UIC researchers will disseminate their findings to the Switchboard network, including state refugee health coordinators and ORR-funded refugee service organizations, and develop high-quality learning resources and materials, including a published manuscript, webinars, guides or hand-outs, and policy briefs. The team also plans to establish community advisory boards comprising parents, youths, leaders, and policy makers in New England to orient its research methods, ground research findings within the Afghan context, and eventually bring the findings of their research into further refinement of their Family Strengthening Intervention for Refugees initiative currently being piloted among Afghan families in Maine.

RPCA researchers said that some insights and observations gleaned from existing refugee resettlement initiatives, such as those in Maine, are likely to be present in others. Postdoctoral researcher Euijin Jung noted that most Somali Bantus are Muslim, as are Afghans, and formative qualitative work revealed that many resettlement stressors are similar—including school and new-language adaptation, low literacy, and a simultaneous concern over losing cultural identity while adjusting to a new one.

“We do have to also appreciate the unique cultural and contextual differences that characterize Afghan populations,” said Betancourt. “For instance, many of the young girls and families with whom we work have never attended co-ed schools, so that entails pretty large adjustments at first.

“Additionally, as opposed to the Bhutanese and Somali Bantu families with whom we work—whose trauma dates back to wars in the late 1990s and subsequent displacement—Afghans experienced very acute trauma as recently as August 2021, so we have to proceed with additional sensitivity and care.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | March 2023