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Education as a protective factor in refugee mental health: A grounded theory approach

Mon, March 26, 11:30am to 1:00pm, Hilton Reforma, Floor: 2nd Floor, Don Américo


Research shows that unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs), particularly girls, experience elevated diagnoses of PTSD, depression, and anxiety as compared to their native-born cohorts. Although some instruments for evaluation and intervention protocols have been applied to URMs, little is understood about the role that education plays as a protective factor. Furthermore, URMs themselves are rarely consulted about what successful mental health treatment ought to address, and what constitutes successful outcomes.

In this portion of the panel, I will report on a limited study, a grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998), with 15 former URMs resettled in the Southeast United States. The research participants were asked questions based on a semi-structured interview protocol aimed at deepening our understanding about how URMs gage their own sense of success. Additionally, I will present anecdotal evidence from front-line resettlement staff that have worked closely with URMs in the Western United States. The findings culminate in two predominant discussion topics: education as a means to giving back; and education as a metric of successful integration. I posit in this presentation that URMs’ focus on education in each of these areas constitute a protective factor against otherwise negative influences of mental health symptoms.

Giving back was identified as a way to transform their past trauma, usually leading to mental health symptoms, into a protective factor. Giving back occurred in the community of resettlement and the community of origin. When URMs were able to give back, they described a sense of control over their environment and a sense of gratification at their ability to support a cause larger than themselves.

URMs identified completing education as a way to measure their belonging in their community of resettlement. A sense of belonging within their community was explained as a source of support and ability to access further community resources. Education was described by URMs as a venue into ‘fitting-in’ and developing a sense of self within the context of a social group. This supports the theory that education is a protective factor for mental health symptoms among URMs. Professionals that work in the resettlement agencies concur with the protective nature that education provides to URMs.

These findings have the potential to contribute knowledge and understanding about how URMs determine success for themselves. Interventions that are focused on supporting their ability to give back, as well as meet educational goals, may be important features of successful integration and improved ability to manage mental health symptoms. I will present a preliminary theoretical framework based on this research that combines both developmental and environmental components to URM integration. Further research priorities will be discussed.

The protective factor of education against mental health symptoms identified by URMs and practitioners is in the early stages of theory development. For this reason, I hope to elicit lively discussion and insight from multiple perspectives. The multidisciplinary nature of this conferences is ideal for such a presentation and discussion.


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