Immigrant children in NJ face barriers to mental health services

Immigrant students in New Jersey need more support in schools to meet their unique mental health needs, according to a new report from immigrant youth advocates.

The experience of a child migrating to a new country can be traumatic, isolating and distressing – on top of that, the pandemic has caused significant loss and heartache for immigrant and refugee communities.

The New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children, a coalition of legal advocates for immigrant youth, released a report last week detailing these and other findings, and focused on highlighting children’s personal experiences during the pandemic. that affected their mental health.

Many schools do not have enough bilingual mental health staff to work with English learners and their families, counselors tend not to understand an immigrant student’s experiences, and there are not enough programs to help newly arrived immigrant students adjust to their new lives, the report says.

“The unique and complex experiences of immigrant youth, as well as their limited access to mental health care, mean that schools must offer culturally aware mental health services that are more accessible to students than outside resources,” the report states.

Among the report’s recommendations are the hiring of bilingual mental health professionals; create student-led, teacher-facilitated community groups to help new immigrant students adjust; and requiring training for all staff to be sensitive to the needs of immigrant students.

Created in part by young leaders from the organization’s Mental Health Advocates program, the report is based on interviews with immigrant students across the state, their caregivers, mental health professionals and staff. school. These interviews took place last summer in Elizabeth, Passaic and Perth Amboy.

“I don’t think most people realize that student issues and immigrant issues are intertwined,” said Consortium policy director Lady Jimenez Torres. “If you have a student population whose mental health needs aren’t being met at school, you’re going to have issues with their entire school experience.”

Last year, the coalition released a report that highlighted how students learning English in New Jersey were often “ignored” during virtual learning, with schools routinely failing to provide information in native languages ​​and bilingual helpers to help with virtual homework.

In Newark, immigrants make up about a third of the population, with the majority coming from Latin American countries. Statewide, there are approximately 115,400 immigrant children, a significant number of college students facing these difficult experiences.

Immigrant and refugee communities have a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and often face barriers related to language, technology, and access to basic health resources. They, along with communities of color, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

A parent, quoted anonymously from an interview last summer in the new report, said his family had recently arrived in New Jersey when the pandemic forced schools to switch to remote learning in March 2020.

“My son is alone. We don’t have a lot of family, only a nephew, but he’s older,” the relative said. “He spent a lot of time locked up taking online classes and it affected him a lot.”

In New Jersey and across the country, there was also a shortage of bilingual mental health professionals before the pandemic. New Jersey immigrant students interviewed in the report said that even in cities with large immigrant populations, there were not enough counselors who spoke their native language.

Danna Chacon, a former undocumented student at Elizabeth High School, said some of her peers who emigrated from Latin American countries shared with her their close encounters with the violence and abuse that drove their families from their homes. native country.

Although she is in Elizabeth, one of the largest districts in the state with an overwhelming majority of Hispanic students, there was only one counselor at her school who spoke Spanish, he said. she stated.

“Coming to the United States was a very difficult transition, in the sense that I really had no support at school,” Chacon said. “I didn’t have a counselor who walked me through what was going on. At the time, there was only one counselor who spoke Spanish, but I rarely saw her. She wouldn’t be available.

Students also said there were not enough advisers – or none, in some cases – who understood the issues facing undocumented students. This problem may deter them from seeking help again.

“I have undocumented friends. Even when they get advice, they don’t get the help they need,” said one student. “They educate the counselor on what it means to be undocumented. (Counselors) cannot help until they understand the problem and the student’s experiences. »

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with other national organizations, declared a national emergency for child and adolescent mental health last fall. The organizations have urged policymakers to increase federal funding to ensure access to mental health services and support school-based mental health care, among other initiatives.

That effort has also taken place in New Jersey, where at a meeting last week, mental health advocates, professionals and experts urged the Senate Education Committee to take action.

As the demand for mental health resources in schools continues to grow, Jimenez Torres hopes policymakers will consider the unique needs of immigrant children in New Jersey.

“When we think about the well-being of a child, regardless of their immigration status, they need to have access to health care, a good education and mental health support,” said Jimenez Torres. “If a child doesn’t have access to health care, a simple cold can keep them out of school for days, contributing to learning loss. If a child’s mental health needs are not addressed, they will not be able to perform as expected of them in the classroom.

Catherine Carrera is Chalkbeat Newark’s office manager, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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