All who work with newly arrived individuals and families in the Champaign-Urbana community are aware of the challenges in trying to connect immigrants with mental health support. Teachers, school counselors, public health workers, legal aid societies, and others who are often the front line for families in need will soon have new resources to offer families thanks to the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), the United Way, and the indefatigable efforts of immigrant advocates to make the case for the glaring need to provide mental health counseling to immigrants across Champaign County.
The COVID Lesson: A Healthy Community Means Addressing Health Access for All
Over the past year multiple studies have called attention to rising levels of anxiety and depression in the US and speculated on the ways the pandemic added new strain to everyday life. What we did not see were discussions of how these stressors may have impacted new arrivees to the US. In Champaign County, where 10-15 percent of households have residents born outside the US, this is an especially important topic. Immigrant physical health is statistically better than the US average (in part due to the younger average age of immigrants), but there have been too few studies on mental health.
Immigrants face several unique stressors (adjusting to a new language and culture, family separation, traumatic pre-arrival experiences, anxiety over legal paperwork . . .) as well as more common challenges faced by economically and racially vulnerable populations. Like other communities, many immigrant communities see mental health concerns as weakness or as a disqualifier in relationships or jobs. Like others, they may wonder how to confidentially find resources, or finance counseling or medication. All of the above is complicated by the challenge of finding services in one’s own language.
The COVID crisis was a game changer, as it revealed the barriers immigrants faced in accessing medical care and information. The C-U Public Health District worked with Immigrant Services of Champaign-Urbana (ISCU), the Refugee Center, and other immigrant relief organizations to make sure important COVID services reached the immigrant community. ISCU’s Community Health Workers, with resources for the Pandemic Health Navigator Program, from the Illinois Public Health Association led the way to achieving higher rates of vaccination for immigrant and minority residents than any of the other populations in our county. One positive legacy of COVID was increased attention to immigrant health as an integral part of community health.
Securing ARPA Funding for Immigrant Mental Health Services
This is also a story about how long it takes for congressional funding to start benefiting folks at the local level. Fortunately, the many hurdles to winning funding for mental health services also provided opportunities to educate the public and improve coordination among different stakeholders in the community.
ARPA passed into law in March, 2021 and made nearly one trillion dollars available to businesses, hospitals, schools and state and local governments. Champaign County received $45 million under ARPA and in May, 2021, the County Board held a public hearing on how to spend those funds.
At the hearing, ISCU advocated for emergency housing for poor immigrants in C-U, highlighting the importance of including immigrant needs in the county’s fiscal planning. Many on the Board were receptive and Stephanie Fortado, chair of the Finance Committee, proposed another hearing exclusively focused on the needs of local immigrants. ISCU reached out to the other immigrant rights and service organizations and also invited representatives of immigrant communities from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Guatemala to speak at the hearing in July, 2021. The hearing was an eye-opener for Board members: many had not been aware of the endless difficulties poor immigrants face in our community, from $300 charges for rides to ICE appointments in Chicago to overpriced, roach-infested apartments.
As a consequence, the Board asked ISCU to propose an ARPA project directly benefiting immigrants in our county. In arduous negotiations over six weeks, the Immigrant Cooperative—consisting of ISCU, the New American Welcome Center, the Refugee Center, the Immigration Project, and Pixan Konob’ Interpreters—hammered out a $550,000 project over two years that will offer professional training for Q’anjob’al (the Mayan language most widely spoken in C-U) interpretation, and offer mental health services for immigrants in person and via telehealth services using mobile phones and video conferencing. The Board approved the project in November and the contract has been signed with the New American Welcome Center, acting as the administrative partner for the four organizations. The project was officially launched in May.
Community Recognition of Community Needs with the United Way
ISCU received additional good news at the beginning of June when United Way of Champaign County fully funded its request for a credentialed social worker that can work to help immigrants resolve situations that can be stressors, as well as to connect them with additional community and mental health services. ISCU was one of 21 community partners to receive funds designed to help members of the community meet basic physical needs and navigate the human services system.
Americorps VISTA Workers on the Horizon
ISCU will provide additional support to immigrants with the assistance of two Americorps VISTA workers, with funding also approved in June. During the past two years the emergency needs immigrants faced during COVID (access to medical care, loss of income, rental and utility crises) created new connections among the immigrant community, immigrant advocates like ISCU, and the hundreds of community volunteers who participated in mutual assistance programs. The Americorps VISTA workers will help institutionalize these new relationships by working with ISCU’s Immigrant Advisory Board, community volunteers, and community partners. Turning the networks that delivered food, rental assistance, and medical information during COVID into networks that can support literacy and other gains will benefit all in the community.
Immigrants and the Health of the Entire C-U Community
Improving immigrant access to mental health services is only one way in which C-U is signaling its recognition that immigrants’ needs are community needs. Access to mental health services, social worker assistance, and connection with the many services offered by public entities and private groups will improve conditions for all. The COVID pandemic was a watershed moment that left behind anxiety and depression for many, but it also left C-U with new networks of assistance that can help address that damage.
As well as being a member of the Public i collective, Janice Jayes serves on the board of Immigrant Services of Champaign-Urbana (ISCU).
Ben Mueller has been Executive Director of ISCU since 2017. He has been an advocate and activist for immigrant causes in C-U, Illinois, and in the north-central US for nearly 30 years. He has also worked overseas with small farmers and coffee growers in Colombia, Georgia, Mexico, and Central America.
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