Maine Programs Support Immigrant Students’ Mental Health

Jun 12, 2017

The issue of mental health is generating more and more discussion in Maine schools. Studies have found that it’s of particular importance to refugee and immigrant students, who have often experienced trauma, both in their home countries and as as they resettle in a new culture.

Educators say reaching these students has sometimes been difficult, because of the stigma around mental health. But a new effort seeks to lessen that stigma and help those hard-to-reach kids.

When Fair Charles arrived in Portland from her home country of Uganda in 6th grade, she tried to fit in and learn a new language. But she says she always ended up feeling like an outsider.

“I feel like at school and at home, my dad is like, ‘You better not forget your language,’” she says. “And then at school, they’re like, ‘You better speak English.’ It’s like two different worlds.”

Charles says she would cry or bubble up with anger when she was bullied. But she says she couldn’t bring those problems up to her parents or siblings. She felt alone.

“It was hard. Sometimes I didn’t even want to wake up and go to school. Or lie that I’m sick and just not go,” she says. “I don’t think we would ever take the time to sit down and talk about anything. It was like, everyday life. You just go on and move on.”

“When they come here, they don’t know about depression. They don’t know about PTSD. They don’t know about anxiety,” says Jean-Marie Selengbe, a cultural broker for Spurwink Clinical Services. “They don’t know at all about that.”

Selengbe works with refugee and immigrant students in Maine. He says students arriving from other countries face discrimination, lack of access to social services and trauma in their home countries. That combination, he says, can lead to emotional and behavioral issues.

Advocates say many of these families aren’t accustomed to identifying mental health problems, or knowing where to seek help for them.

“So our attempts to connect those students with those services had not been successful,” says Robin Fleck, the English language learning coordinator for the Auburn School Department.

Fleck says that for years, many of these students who needed help couldn’t get it, because they did not have a specific clinical diagnosis. But six years ago, Fleck heard about a model called Project SHIFA, developed by Boston Children’s Hospital, designed to bring these students together and help them.

On a recent Monday afternoon, about half a dozen 5th- and 6th-grade girls gather in a circle at Auburn’s Park Avenue Elementary School. They come from other places in the world, such as Iraq and Somalia. In this session, they bat a beach ball around, then play a game called Telephone.

After the game, though, the girls sit and talk about what that game of Telephone meant. In this case, it’s about communication. Maggie Soule, who leads the group, asks the girls if talking to their parents at home is lot different from the way they talk to teachers at school.

“Very different,” says one student from the Philippines, who says she has felt pressured to keep speaking her native language from her grandmother.

“She would sometimes remind us it’s kind of sad that we’d forget how we speak our own language,” the girl says. “Because we spoke English so much. Now we speak more English than Tagalog. Because we left the Philippines for that long.”

These are conversations that the girls don’t normally have with a lot of their peers, teachers or even their parents. But Fleck says she wants this group to be a safe place to talk about these issues and learn.

“So they’re learning that it is OK to have these kinds of conversations and that there are places where you can have that safely,” she says.

The program does have its limits within the school walls. If a student’s behavior escalates too far, then Fleck says the school will connect with other organizations and try to get more specialized, one-on-one care. And in Auburn, the program is limited only to 5th and 6th graders.

Students at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland.
Credit Marie Sheffield / Center for Grieving Children

For some older students like Charles, when she was in high school, there was another place to turn — the Center for Grieving Children in Portland.

The center provides a gathering place for students from many cultures, and a safe place to talk about their experiences. But consultant Bruce St. Thomas says the focus here is on what he calls the “collective loss” that many feel after leaving their old culture behind.

“Loss of homeland. And geography. And memories of experiences they had had with their family. People who had been left behind,” he says.

To help work through this collective loss, students create a collaborative art project every year. It’s designed to bring them together and create community. This year, the project is an autobiographical song.

So far, these interventions appear to be working, as measured by improved grades and fewer behavioral problems for these students. Charles, who just wrapped up her second year of college, says she has learned how to handle her anger and frustration.

“To speak up,” she says. “And just not let people step on you.”

In the next few years, Project SHIFA is set to expand to Biddeford and Westbrook.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.