Written by S.M. Audsley

It is sometimes difficult to fully comprehend what refugees might be going through. The Tennessee Office for Refugees in the United States put it aptly in saying, “To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory.” Refugees, displaced people who are forced to leave their country of origin due to circumstances of war, persecution, or natural disaster, are, typically, people in need of special care. Their healthcare needs are unique to their situations and each case varies and can be complex and difficult. If you are interested in working with the refugee population -- both a challenging and very rewarding career path -- you will want to research and consider how best you can be of service to this group of people.

A displaced person, often under duress and experiencing trauma, will need special care to help him or her adjust to their new life in a foreign country. If you are interested in working with this population, make sure you are aware of the unique nuances and special needs of this population. Getting proper training will be key to successfully addressing the needs of the refugee community. Healthcare fields of study can provide direct relief for many refugees. Here are five healthcare fields you can study to help refugees.

1. Mental health

Many refugees suffer from mental and emotional trauma. “For many refugees, the relief of arriving at a place of safety is soon followed by a sense of anguish at all they have lost. [...] The trauma of their recent past collides with the uncertainty of their new reality, resulting in increased rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. For others, treatment for pre-existing disorders is disrupted, increasing the likelihood of relapse,” reports the Guardian. In all of these cases, talking to a trained professional can be the key to helping someone navigate their trauma, and, even might ensure their future survival in their new home.

Clinical social workers can work directly with refugees and are trained to deal with patients who have been exposed to trauma. Typically a clinical social worker will have completed a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and carry the LCSW (Licensed Counselor of Social Work) designation if they are doing psychotherapy. Your training will enable you with the tools you will need to help someone cope with and understand their situation.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in psychiatric cases that we have to deal with,” Grigoris Kavarnos, a clinical psychologist who treats refugees and migrants on Lesbos with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told ABC News. Trained psychiatrists who specialize in refugees and working with displaced people can be key to helping this community. There are many useful mental health degrees that can be put to good use if you want to help refugees.

2. Psychology

Before you specialize in any mental health field, you will want to have a general foundation in psychology. Understanding the nuances of the human brain, and how it affects personality, feelings, emotions, and decision-making, can be key to unlocking the suffering of a refugee. “The insights you gain about peoples’ motivations, perceptions and behaviour will perhaps give you a different perspective on why people react in the ways they do and help you to understand people a little better,” says the National College of Ireland. Having a strong foundation in psychology will allow you to pursue more specialized degrees and certifications that will help you work more effectively with refugees, and also, you will be able to better address the unique needs of this group.

3. Health management

Maybe you are more of a big picture kind of person? Do you prefer to consider and try to solve large system-based problems? Then, perhaps, studying health management might be a better fit for you. This field is also effective in helping refugees as many nonprofit directors and higher management workers directly assist with addressing the needs of the refugee population.

A healthcare management professional will be in charge of overall program development, management, and administering of programs specifically addressing urgent needs in certain areas and for special populations. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross only functions successfully by having a team of trained and dedicated healthcare management professionals to implement planned health management strategies.

Doctor Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres), another international healthcare organization, also works on the frontlines to address the needs of refugees and displaced people all over the world. “We are a field-based movement engaging MSF volunteers and staff from all over the world in a shared commitment to medical humanitarian action,” the organization explains. Now, imagine yourself sitting at the table, trained in healthcare management, and putting your degree to good use, making decisions that will have positive outcomes for a large refugee population. Your job will likely mean more than just a good salary -- it might mean saving lives!

4. Nursing and primary healthcare

There is a shortage of certified nurses around the world, so a degree in nursing will guarantee you a job, and, also a satisfying career. Nurses are on the frontlines of working with trauma. Refugees, especially those coming from severe war-torn countries, often require immediate medical attention. As a nurse, or even as a primary care physician, you will be the first to triage wounds, assess mental and emotional states, and recommend psychologists or psychiatrists if needed. Some graduate programs are considering including a Masters of Primary Health Care degree.

The World Health Organization explains, “Primary health care is well-positioned to respond to rapid economic, technological, and demographic changes, all of which impact health and well-being. [...] A primary healthcare approach draws in a wide range of stakeholders to examine and change policies to address the social, economic, environmental and commercial determinants of health and well-being. Treating people and communities as key actors in the production of their own health and well-being is critical for understanding and responding to the complexities of our changing world.”

If you want to work closely with refugees, to help them move forward after their traumatizing experiences, both medically and emotionally, then perhaps getting advanced medical training as a nurse or primary care physician could be for you.

5. Pastoral counseling and art therapy

As anyone can imagine, a refugee will need specialized counseling sessions with trained professionals who can work with them to help them heal and address their trauma. General counseling is vital, but pastoral counseling is also very important. A pastoral counselor spends more of their time talking with patients, and they have “experience and training in the ministry, hold[s] a postgraduate degree from an accredited university, are credentialed by a local religious community, and have significant education and supervised counseling experience. Many also possess a state license as a psychologist, marriage and family therapist or social worker.” The pastoral counselor differs from the clinical counselor in that he or she has more options to integrate their counseling services to include ministries and faith-based services. This could be effective for refugees as long as the counselor understands how to tailor their therapy, particularly with regard to the ethics implicit in the job and unique cultural considerations of working with refugees.

Art therapy is another excellent option for helping refugees deal with and manage their trauma. A trained art therapist integrates art into the traditional talk-therapy session, giving the client a way to work through their trauma by using art as the means to express and address their emotions.

“I first became aware of art therapy as a way to draw out deeply repressed and otherwise unspeakable trauma experiences from young children. This complementary mental health discipline was used by some local mental health providers after the atrocity at Sandy Hook School. Later, I became aware that art therapy was also a great tool to reach folks suffering from Alzheimer's disease, dementia, addiction, as well as others who are unable to communicate verbally. For some, art therapy works like opening a window, allowing other, more traditional treatments, to be applied," reflected State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, who recently passed a bill to approve licensure for art therapists in the US state of Connecticut.

Refugees will face many unfathomable challenges to integrating into a new life in a new country. As a trained healthcare professional in these fields (and more), you will be able to help refugees not only address their traumatic experiences, but help create long-lasting, positive, life-changing habits, systems, and practices. Whatever healthcare field you choose, you will help refugees thrive and begin to feel a part of their new communities and the world at large; what could be more satisfying or more important work?!

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