Social Workers Needed Amidst Migrant Mental Health Crisis

With hundreds of asylum seekers arriving in New York City every day, a serious mental health crisis continues to unfold. As of just a few weeks ago, NYC had approximately 64,600 people seeking asylum in funded shelters, and over 182,900 have come through the system since the spring of 2022. Countless families are fleeing their homes in search of safety, proper housing, and economic security– oftentimes leaving their loved ones behind. As social workers acutely understand, access to mental health services can vary depending on one’s identity and socioeconomic status. For migrant children, the need for such services is becoming dire. 

Dr. Mashura Akilova from Columbia School of Social Work is one of the editors of Integrative Social Work Practice with Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Other Forcibly Displaced Persons.  The book provides knowledge and expertise from more than 35 authors in hopes of training social workers and other professionals through an integrative and interdisciplinary approach. The findings show that asylum seekers face unique challenges associated with their specific status in the countries where they seek protection. Many of the migrants that have entered NYC since 2022 are from South American countries such as Venezuela and El-Salvador, both of which are experiencing social and economic strife. Dr. Akilova and her colleagues have found that “experiences of trauma and loss, and liminality caused by protracted application processes, affect the mental health and well-being of asylum seekers.” Compounded by the already existing hardships, many migrant children and families are unable to receive the care that they need due to institutional and structural barriers that further perpetuate inequities within our healthcare system. 

A recent RAND report commissioned by the City found that there were very few social workers and psychologists available to patients who could not pay out of pocket. The high cost for such services is already a barrier to entry for so many established New Yorkers, let alone migrant families who often arrive with very few resources. For migrant children that are able to participate in the City’s public school system, social workers’ presence is an absolute necessity. In 2023, there were roughly 907,000 students enrolled in NYC Public Schools (not including charters) and about 2,000 school social workers for a total of one social worker per every 450 students. Ashley Busone Rodriguez, a community school teacher in Washington Heights, has recently received a dramatic increase in migrant students. “We need more social workers in our schools,” Ashley states, “because if we don’t address their trauma now, these children won’t be able to get through the day, let alone learn.” 

Funding for social workers and trauma-informed mental health practitioners is crucial, especially as migrant families continue to take refuge in NYC. The ongoing mental health crisis and inability to properly address the resulting complications serves as a reminder of how social workers are hugely important to the fabric of our society. Our migrant communities and children deserve a safe space to learn, grow, and thrive.

April 05, 2024