Health
10:54 am
Mon February 3, 2014

Six Things To Know About Refugees and Health Care in Pittsburgh

As a child in war-torn Somalia, Aweys Mwaliya saw friends and family killed in massacres. He and his family eventually fled, spending a decade living in refugee camps. Nine years ago, he was resettled in Utah and later moved to Pittsburgh. Among his fellow Somalian refugees, he said there are a lot of people who need mental health help, but most won’t go for it.
As a child in war-torn Somalia, Aweys Mwaliya saw friends and family killed in massacres. He and his family eventually fled, spending a decade living in refugee camps. Nine years ago, he was resettled in Utah and later moved to Pittsburgh. Among his fellow Somalian refugees, he said there are a lot of people who need mental health help, but most won’t go for it.
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

In 2012, more that 58,000 refugees were resettled in the United States. A couple thousand of them came to Pennsylvania. Many of these refugees come to the United States fleeing war and genocide. Many arrive healthy but develop chronic illnesses as they adopt American habits. Others feel isolated and alone – suffering that can turn toxic over time. 

As part of a special collaborative series called Living in the Shadows, 90.5 WESA has recently been exploring the health care needs of refugees in Pittsburgh. Here are a handful of key things to know:

1.) The Congolese Are Coming: Over the next five years, 50,000 Congolese will be resettled in the United States by the U.S. State Department. Roughly 2,000 of them will be moving to Pittsburgh. Many of them will come with trauma, depression and without any English language skills. They will be in need of mental health services that they fear will not be available.

2.) New Home, New Diet, New Problems: The new population of 4,000 to 5,000 ethnically Bhutanese-Nepalese refugees who live in Pittsburgh have a high risk of obesity and hypertension — indicators of diabetes — that grows every year. Immigrants struggle to change their traditional diets and pay for medication, especially if they are uninsured.

3.) Language Barriers Abound: Cultural and health care barriers are magnified for immigrants in Pittsburgh because the city lacks interpreters in a slew of languages in the courts and schools and drug and alcohol treatment centers.

4. For Health Care, the Clock's Ticking: All refugees have health care coverage for the first eight months they are in the U.S. But when the eight months are over, if they don’t qualify for Medicaid or disability or have a job that provides them health care, they are at a loss. Gov. Tom Corbett isn’t expanding Medicaid in Pennsylvania this year. It’s estimated that there are more than 600,000 people who could benefit from the Medicaid expansion, but sometimes even the cheapest insurance plan would still cost too much.

5.) Bhutanese Refugees Face a High Suicide Rate: The global suicide rate per 100,000 people is 16. The U.S. rate for the general population is 12.4. A recent study found the Bhutanese rate is higher — 20.3 among refugees resettled in the U.S. and 20.7 among those in the refugee camps in Nepal. “Most suicide decedents were generally unemployed men who were not providers of their family; the most common post-migration difficulties faced by the victims were language barriers, worries about family back home, and difficulty maintaining cultural and religious traditions,” the authors of the report wrote.

6.) Trauma Lingers, and Can Go Untreated: Survivors of war-torn countries may have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is difficult to treat and recognize, especially when there aren’t always services available. But many in need of mental health treatment won’t go for help.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the suicide rate among Bhutanese refugees. The article has been updated.