Abstract: Mental Health of Arabic-Speaking Adolescent Immigrants from Conflict-Affected Countries (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Mental Health of Arabic-Speaking Adolescent Immigrants from Conflict-Affected Countries

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Ilana Seff, MPH, Doctoral Candidate, Columbia University, NY
Background/Purpose: Adolescence represents a critical phase of the life course for physical, social and neural development, and sets the foundation for health and wellbeing later in life. In recent years, a growing number of adolescent immigrants from conflict-affected, Arabic-speaking countries have resettled to the US, but little is known about how this population is faring. These adolescents likely encounter a number of challenges that increase their risk of adverse psychosocial and mental health outcomes. These challenges may range from struggling to adapt to a new language and culture, to losing support networks and access to basic services or being subjected to routine discrimination and micro-aggressions. Exposure to conflict or persecution prior to migration may further exacerbate these risks.

Methods: This mixed-methods study seeks to assess the mental health of foreign-born adolescents from Arab-majority countries (aged 13-21 years) in school-based settings in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Austin, Texas, Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, and to locate the sources of stress and support mechanisms within schools. We conduct a survey with a stratified sample of adolescent students in public high schools, with foreign-born students from Arab-majority countries students being oversampled. Outcomes measured in the survey questionnaire include hope, resilience, depressive, anxiety, and externalizing symptoms, perceived social support, and perceived sense of school belonging. Student records containing information on attendance and disciplinary events were also assessed. We also conduct in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with purposive samples of community key informants, foreign-born adolescents, and foreign-born parents. Multiple streams of qualitative inquiry were guided by thematic analysis.

Results: Quantitative analysis is still underway. Qualitative findings identify several means by which various actors work together to support resettled adolescents. Promising efforts found to enhance these supports include sheltered instruction, school-parent collaboration, peer support programming, social and emotional learning initiatives, and integrated mental health centers. Findings also show that upon resettlement, education remains highly valued for resettled families. While addressing challenges associated with their newcomer status, parents reported simultaneously providing support to their children’s academic success. A final stream of thematic analysis identifies the ways in which acculturative experiences reinforce or challenge gender norms for MENA boys and girls.

Conclusions: While this study underscores the resilience of newcomers and the value of local support systems, it also reflects the importance of investment in schools, mental health systems, and resettlement programs that can enable newcomers to achieve their full potential. We offer suggestions on how schools and organizations can foster the mental health and psychosocial well-being of resettled adolescents as well as how they can bolster parents’ ability to support their children’s education.