Social worker honored for work with refugees

Beth-photo-color-webAs a social worker in Seattle, Beth Farmer knew that tens of thousands of refugees were coming to the United States from war-torn countries such as Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia. Most had witnessed horrific violence and experienced severe trauma, yet the concept of mental health was foreign in many of these cultures. How could she help these refugees obtain emotional support that could help them to resettle successfully?

Farmer found a way. And the efforts of the program director for Lutheran Community Services Northwest’s international counseling and community services program, based in SeaTac, resulted in her being named one of 10 recipients nationally of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader awards.  Nominated by fellow LCSNW staff member Sasha, Farmer was chosen out of hundreds of applications nationwide.  Along with the honor is an award of $125,000 which will primarily be used for a project that she’s planning to submit to the foundation for approval.

The Community Health Leaders Award honors men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle challenging healthcare problems in their communities. Farmer received her award during a ceremony in San Antonio, Texas Oct. 17.

“Refugees come from tremendously difficult situations, witnessing loved ones killed in bombings, living through unimaginable suffering, and then experiencing deprivation in refugee camps. They get a tremendous opportunity to build a new life in the United States, but the past is still with them,” said Farmer, who launched the Pathways to Wellness project in Seattle to improve delivery of mental health care services to refugees. Upon arrival, the nearly 80,000 refugees who come to the United States each year are screened for diseases, but until recently, mental health was rarely included, according to Farmer.

As a graduate student, Farmer worked with a psychiatrist and others to develop a screening tool in collaboration with refugee communities.

“A lot of Burmese, Bhutanese and Iraqis are coming into the United States as refugees right now. Many of the Iraqis worked with the American military, so they are targeted for killing,” Farmer said. “These are very different cultures and languages, and we needed to make sure that each translation was right according to language and culture.”

Farmer convened focus groups from refugee communities to discuss translations and meanings for screenings. Her work resulted in a short assessment for symptoms of anxiety and depression. A pilot program in King County screened 251 people and found 30 percent in significant distress; 70 percent of those accepted support. Today, about 70 percent of the 1,800 refugees coming into King County will be screened. The method is also used in Arizona, Maryland, Florida, Idaho, Orego, and Maine