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OHSU Intercultural Psychiatric Program: serving immigrants, refugees for 40 years

Patients experience stress, anxiety with heightened immigration scrutiny
Intercultural Psychiatric Program
Abdela Woticha (left) and David Kinzie, M.D., share a laugh in between patient appointments at OHSU's Intercultural Psychiatric Program, March 3, 2017 in Portland. The program was founded in 1977 and provides mental health treatment for refugees. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

The United States has long been a refuge for people from war-torn nations who are seeking a safer, better life. Many of recent arrivals struggle to adjust to their new life in America, even under the best of circumstances. Today, at a time of heightened scrutiny over immigration, counselors and psychiatrists with a unique OHSU psychiatric program report rising levels of mental health afflictions among recent immigrants, including stress, anxiety and trouble sleeping.

“We’re in a very uncertain time, with lots of anti-refugee, anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Daniel Towns, D.O., medical director of the OHSU Intercultural Psychiatric Program. “People have reason to wonder, ‘What does this country think about me? Am I welcome here?’”

The program serves approximately 1,100 people in the Portland area, including 200 survivors of torture from countries including Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Syria. Along with six psychiatrists, the program enlists 14 multilingual counselors along with contracted interpreters to effectively provide mental health care for the population. Towns says the program provides support and treatment for a wide range of mental health issues ranging from dementia to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from traumatic and tragic circumstances they have endured.

David Kinzie, M.D., started the program in 1977, primarily to serve large groups of recent immigrants arriving from Southeast Asia following the end of the Vietnam War. Kinzie continues to work as a psychiatrist in the program, inspired by the same motivation to help people that prompted him to begin the program four decades ago.

“I was just thinking we needed to help them,” Kinzie said. “It was natural.”

He sees parallels between the reception that greeted refugees from Southeast Asia following the fall of Saigon in 1975, to the antagonism and suspicion reported by many of today’s immigrants.

“They’re terrified. They are really, really terrified,” Kinzie said. “It’s a very scary time.”

Initially, the program was known as the Indochinese Psychiatric Program but soon morphed into a broader mission as new arrivals sought help in adjusting to their new life in the United States. People who survived torture arrived from every corner of the world – Cambodia, Guatemala, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Iraq.

“They just kept coming, and we adjusted each time,” Kinzie said.

Kinzie originally conceived of the program lasting no more than five years, once the initial wave of Vietnamese immigrants settled in. But the need for mental health counseling for new immigrants in the Portland area has continued unabated. Kinzie doesn’t see the immigrants as a threat to national security, but as neighbors in need of help.

“These are people who have been traumatized,” Kinzie said. “They are not a threat – they need relief, they need help. That’s what our job is.”

Kinzie describes the clinic’s patients as exceptionally dedicated to their treatment. Time after time, he’s seen patients keep their own cultural values while also becoming productive members of American society.

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