May 20, 2013.
Past trauma, poor understanding of health care services is common, UC Davis study finds.
MESO staff member Rusul Tawffeq interviewed Iraqi refugees to learn about their current health conditions and challenges in accessing health care.
Past trauma and a lack of understanding of the U.S. health care system are key factors affecting the mental and physical health of Iraqi refugees in Sacramento, according to a new report released today (May 20) by UC Davis’ Center for Reducing Health Disparities and Clinical and Translational Science Center as well as two community groups that serve refugee populations — Opening Doors Inc. and the Mesopotamia Organization (MESO).
The report, entitled “Mental and Physical Health of Recent Iraqi Refugees in Sacramento, California,” represents the views of 34 Iraqi men and women who lived in the Sacramento area from December 2008 to August 2012 and who agreed to share details about their current health conditions and the challenges they encountered while accessing health care services. It is the first study to assess the unmet health care needs of the Iraqi refugee population in Sacramento, one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the region.
The study found that 79 percent of Iraqi refugees reported trauma as a major health concern, with insomnia (59 percent), depression (44 percent), headaches (41 percent), and fear (38 percent) as the most common physical and psychological symptoms experienced. These findings mirror previous health assessments of Iraqi refugees conducted in other U.S. cities, which also found depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among the most common conditions affecting individuals who have fled war-torn Iraq.
Sacramento Iraqi refugees also believe the U.S. health care system is costly and difficult to understand and access. They were especially confused by the specialty care referral process, the separation of dental and vision care services, and the seemingly arbitrary nature regarding conditions that insurance plans cover. These factors, they said, were compounded by their inability to understand medical terminology, as many were still learning to speak English, and primary care providers’ lack of knowledge of Iraqi refugees, their health needs and the effects of trauma on mental and physical health.
The report also found that the vast majority of Iraqi refugees did not access mental health care, either due to a lack of knowledge about options, unwillingness to bring up the subject of trauma with providers, or cultural and linguistic barriers to understanding how mental health is viewed and treated in the U.S. To cope with their mental health needs, the group relied most on friends and family members (91 percent), religion and faith in God (65 percent) and exercise and sports (44 percent).
“Untreated mental health needs are very common problems, creating significant burdens for individuals and their families and reducing productivity and quality of life,” said Linda Ziegahn, community engagement and research program manager at the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities and an author of the study.