Accessing mental health services is one thing—finding care that’s culturally competent is another. Some immigrants and refugees may have limited access to services because of language barriers while others may be unlikely to seek help at all, having come from countries where talking about mental health is taboo.

The International Council on Refugees and Immigrants (ICRI) is addressing this through a new peer support program, offering a different model of support than clinical therapy.

“In recent years, it has become normalized in the U.S. to go to therapy or take medication,” said Dekow Sagar, Founder and Executive Director of ICRI. “But therapy is not known or accepted in many countries, so we believe peer support model will be more impactful.”

Last year, ICRI received $50,000 from the Community Resilience Fund to hire, train, and certify former refugees as peer support specialists who would connect other immigrants and refugees to mental health services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Seven people have already been through training, including local members of the Somali, Afghan, Karen, Kachin, and South Sudanese communities. They are all well equipped to empathize with and support the experiences of their peers.

Before the pandemic, the Omaha-Council Bluffs area had significant mental health concerns among its residents. One in four people experienced symptoms of depression. Many migrants are within the demographics that experience the highest risks of depression: young people of color in poverty, especially women.

Mental health issues have only increased over the last two years, exacerbating an urgent community issue.

“For us to recover, it will be critical to address our community’s increased mental health needs,” said Emily Nguyen, Director of Research and Strategy at the Omaha Community Foundation.

Refugees often face compounding challenges. After experiencing trauma in their home countries, they must adjust to life somewhere new.

“It is isolating,” Sagar said, speaking of his own experience as a young man. “I had extremely depressing moments. I knew people that wanted to go back [despite the danger]. Even if you are surrounded by thousands of people, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a support system.”

The peer support model is a grassroots approach and a strategic, evidence-based one. Peer support specialists go through extensive training and take a skills test to get certified. Once certified, they can serve in a peer support role.

Ten clients are currently using these peer support services. As more specialists are trained, ICRI will be able to increase its caseload.

“This program was just an idea when we got the grant,” Sagar said. “Now we have people from the community who are trained. We are in a good spot.”

ABOUT THIS STORY

In 2021, the Community Resilience Fund supported Omaha-area nonprofits serving communities disproportionately affected by Covid-19. ICRI was one of 37 nonprofits to receive a grant. Thanks to generous community support, a total of $527,942.75 went to programs and services focused on arts and culture, housing, learning recovery, mental health, and workforce. See the list of grant recipients.

Moving forward, the Community Resilience Fund will operate on an as-needed basis to provide timely, flexible grantmaking when unexpected and urgent needs arise in our community.

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