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Pittsburgh: Language barriers complicate refugee mental health treatment

Posted by Ann Corcoran on January 9, 2014

A radio station reporter has discovered that Pittsburgh, PA has taken a lot of refugees in need of health treatment (including mental health treatment) that they may not be getting.  I’ll bet it’s happening where you live too, and partly because no one is available to translate for the mental health provider.

Esar Met was not normal in the camp. If a reporter figured that out, surely the US State Dept. knew.

The issue of cities and counties being responsible for appropriate interpreters came up the other day when we wrote about the Utah murder case where the Salt Lake City police must have figured any Burmese person would do to communicate with the newly arrested Esar Met.  Met is a Muslim, probably a Rohingya.  If he is Rohingya he speaks a Bengali dialect.

So, think about it, according to federal law, local governments are required to provide interpreters, not just in law enforcement cases, but when helping refugees get the appropriate medical treatment and in the hundreds of languages and dialects spoken by refugees.

Increasingly, we are hearing of mental health problems in the refugee community going unattended.  Add the cost of all this (treatment and translators) when determining if yours is to be a “welcoming” community for refugees.

The US State Department resettles refugees with mental problems as they surely knew Esar Met was not normal.

In the Utah rape/murder case an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2008 tells us this about the accused murderer (below).  Interestingly his mother did not want to come to America, but the US State Department figured Met would make a good addition to a multicultural America—help diversify Utah!

A challenged son » About a mile away, people at Mae La knew Esar Met was not normal. He often sat alone, talking and laughing to himself in the Muslim section of the camp where his family lived. Or he played with children years younger, shooting rubber bands in the camp’s narrow lanes, flicking marbles across the rocky, dirt patches that were his neighbors’ yards.

He was the eldest of eight children, but when he argued with his younger brothers, he was the one to cry.

As a boy, he could not remember what he learned in class. His mother, Ra He Mar, knew her son was not very smart and worried he might become even slower as he grew older. After he had to repeat second grade, she let him drop out of school.

Friends told her the family should find someone to “check his brain,” but Esar’s parents thought they couldn’t afford to have him tested.

I’m surprised there is no insanity plea in the case yet, maybe it is still coming.

Reporter Erika Beras: no system in place when refugees are new to the town.

Back to Pittsburgh where there is NO SYSTEM IN PLACE for dealing with mental health issues and language barriers.

From 90.5 WESA (NPR in Pittsburgh), thanks to reader Joanne:

Refugees to the region face a number of challenges, unfamiliarity with a different language is even more complicated when trying to obtain health care.

90.5 WESA Behavioral Health Reporter Erika Beras is embarking on a month-long series on the challenges refugees face in the Pittsburgh area to obtain health care. She says her interest in the topic was sparked by the high population of refugees in Pittsburgh.

“The refugee community here has grown and grown. And in that time I’d been talking to providers and I’d been in different situations at specialty courts and I keep hearing stories about different refugees who have come in with different issues and how people are struggling to meet their needs. They don’t quite have a system in place after the first few months a refugee is in town.”

Mental health challenges throughout the US:

As Project Editor for the Reporting on Health Collaborative, William Heisel also finds the system to be often unprepared or overwhelmed by immigrant mental health cases.

“When you’re talking about refugees, they’re coming with acute needs…Refugees are coming from conflicts that most of us will never experience and so they, in addition to having the trauma they need to get over, they have language barriers that make it difficult for them to access health care, many of them have low income status, they’re disconnected from their communities and so we are seeing this throughout the U.S. as a pretty big challenge.”

So who is responsible for refugees when they first arrive in Pittsburgh?   Catholic Charities, Jewish Family & Children Services and AJAPO (Acculturation for Justice, Access & Peace Outreach) (here).   Ms. Beras needs to start her investigation right here—with these three federal contractors.

For ambitious readers, this is our 190th post on health problems and refugees.  See Health issues category here.

6 Responses to “Pittsburgh: Language barriers complicate refugee mental health treatment”

  1. […] station.  We have mentioned previously two of Ms. Beras’s excellent investigative reports, here and […]


  2. […] the Middle East, Asia—to be replayed in America?  And, if you argue that Met was just a mentally impaired man, then why are we bringing those now […]


  3. pungentpeppers said

    Per the Wall Street Journal’s India blog,

    “Since the start of Nov. 2013, seven Bhutanese refugees have killed themselves after resettling in the U.S.” and

    “many young Bhutanese adults seem to find a mismatch between their idea of the American dream and the availability of work and quality of pay in the U.S.”


    • Ann Corcoran said

      Thanks PP! Another reader brought the Bhutanese suicides to my attention this week. Will say something about it….


  4. Richard M Nixon (Deceased) said

    Reblogged this on Dead Citizen's Rights Society.


  5. Brittius said

    Reblogged this on


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