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Early Study Results Show High Rates Of Anxiety Among Syrian Refugee Kids

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 6.43.04 PMParents pick up their children at Naranca Elementary in El Cajon, Oct. 5, 2016. The school is one of many in the San Diego suburb that has received an influx of Syrian refugees.

By Tarryn Mento
Logo for K P B S San Diego

Syrian refugee children arriving to the U.S. reported high rates of anxiety, according to a study’s initial findings presented this month at an annual meeting in San Diego.

The preliminary results, shared at the American Psychiatric Association conference, showed within one month of coming to the U.S., nearly two-thirds of surveyed kids had probable anxiety diagnosis and 85 percent had probable separation anxiety.

he report, which studied 59 children who averaged 11 years old, were presented by Cynthia Arfken, an assistant researcher on the project and professor at Wayne State University in Michigan. The findings are part of a larger study led by Arfken’s colleague Dr. Arash Javanbakht.

Arfken acknowledged the early results were not necessarily surprising, but she said the findings show additional support is needed to help refugee students overcome the trauma of fleeing the war-torn Middle Eastern country. Since releasing the initial results, Arfken said she has heard from teachers who confirmed refugee children are having a “tremendous problem” in the classroom.

“It’s getting in the way of the children really succeeding in school, because they’re constantly wanting to be with their parents and they’re afraid of being separated from them,” Arfken said in a phone interview.

Arfken and her colleagues said the initial research points to the need for intervention.

“We’re not talking for medications or formal psychotherapy, but ways to reduce the stress level to make the children feel more safe and secure, and that’s a way of making the parents feel safe and secure, too” she said.

That could include art or dance therapy, Arfken added. The project has received funding from the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation to hold intervention programs over the summer and identify low-cost options.

Arfken said since initial research was conducted late last year the sample size of participating children has grown to nearly 150. Although she said she had more analysis to do, the high rates of anxiety symptoms appear to be consistent among the larger group.

San Diego received the largest amount of refugees than any other region last federal fiscal year, including many from Syria, according to data compiled by the county.

19 percent of arrivals were Syrian, the second-largest group behind refugees from Iraq. They join tens of thousands of refugees from a variety of countries that have been resettled in the area over the last few decades.

Susan Hagos, health advocacy coordinator for Nile Sisters Development Initiative, has worked with many of the new arrivals in the area, especially those who resettled in City Heights. She said meeting the behavioral health needs of refugees is an important topic to address, but said specific data is elusive because mental health screenings are voluntary, while physical evaluations are mandatory. She commended the Wayne State University researchers for following up with refugee families about their emotional well-being.

“I think that that’s a window that needs to be tapped into a lot more in order for us to begin to understand and have some baseline data to compare…what some of the unmet needs are,” Hagos said.

Last year, the nonprofit Nile Sisters launched a series of discussions among ethnic and faith-based groups about mental health needs for the refugee community. The conversations were compiled in the report, “Advancing Equity: Refugee and Ethnic Mental Health,” which was released this month.

Hagos said Nile Sisters is helping to lead the Refugee and Ethnic Mental Health Coalition to address some of the concerns identified in the document. The next meeting is in June.


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