VMHA: Destigmatizing Mental Health in Immigrant Communities

The Volunteer Mental Health Advocate program (VMHA) was started this past September at The Welcome Project by BU intern, Jasmin Choi. The VMHA serves as both a weekly class and life-skill/support group that focuses on addressing the stigma surrounding mental health specifically in the immigrant community of Somerville. Members of the class learn to serve as community advocates and facilitate dialogue about mental health issues in their communities.
The program started its initial recruitment of students during the summer of 2015 by reaching out to ESOL classes and the greater immigrant community.There are currently five core members of the VMHA program who come from Brazil, Haiti and Ukraine. Almost all students currently in the program are ESOL graduates. Though the program focuses on mental health awareness, it also helps students strengthen social skills, engage others in social action surrounding the immigrant experience and practice English.


The first half of the VMHA program was dedicated to learning about specific kinds of mental health disorders and the methods to address them. Acculturative stress, anxiety, depression and trauma were some of the topics covered. The second part of the VMHA program, which students are currently in, is dedicated to community engagement, research and advocacy. Jasmin notes that it’s incredibly important for immigrants to advocate for their own communities where the issues they study are most relevant to them and speak to their heart. One of the goals of the program is to produce a pamphlet that features student’s research. It may be translated into Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and Creole in order to allow all community members access to this information.


In order to start to engage with the community, members of the program presented to ESOL classes. These presentations are a joint effort of VMHA members and often start by addressing health, work stress and then transition to talking about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Students have learned that this progression is most effective in engaging the community since it is often hard for individuals to be immediately vulnerable in conversations about mental health. So far, the VMHA has received positive feedback and a lot of interest from ESOL classes. Jasmin described how in one ESOL class students asked about coping strategies even before VMHA members had the chance to present on strategies to address mental health.


One of the most recent events of the VMHA has been a mental health job fair that happened March 10th in partnership with SCC (Somerville Community Corporation). The fair was geared towards providing opportunities for immigrants interested in jobs in healthcare. The fair was extremely important for students hoping to practice their social skills in English and learn about what opportunities may exist in health professions. In the future, Jasmin hopes to work on expanding the program to create partnerships with healthcare providers that are hiring nurse assistants. Ideally, students who complete the VMHA program would be able to get a job interview with a sponsoring health care provider.

The VMHA participated in the Mayor’s Wellness Challenge fair as the only organization addressing mental health. Students showcased the work they are doing in the community and made visible the particular struggles that the Somerville community faces regarding mental health. Click here to see photos from the Mayor's Wellness Challenge!
There is an obvious need for and interest in mental health awareness and advocacy in the Somerville immigrant community, and communities worldwide. The VMHA program is proving integral in empowering immigrants to educate members of their own communities about these issues.