Post-arrival Behavioral Health Status among Burmese Refugees

By Isok Kim

Published June 1, 2017

“Healthcare professionals must explore ways to respond to behavioral health needs that are tailored to cultural and linguistic differences”
Isok Kim, Assistant Professor
Social Work

Since its independence from Britain in 1948, Burma has been embroiled in one of the longest-running civil wars in the world, mainly due to its complex ethno-political tensions that resulted in ongoing conflicts between its military government and ethnic minority groups. As a result, many refugees from Burma, members of the Karen ethnic group in particular, fled to refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, where these refugees have lingered for years before being granted resettlement to the United States in the early 2000s.

Protracted camp stays contribute to various health problems. For example, CDC’s health profiles of Burmese refugees provide broad guidelines over what health conditions to consider for refugees originating from refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. These include communicable diseases (e.g., Malaria, Hepatitis B & C, parasitic infections), non-communicable diseases (e.g., elevated blood lead level), nutrition-related issues (e.g., malnutrition, anemia), and mental health conditions.

Healthcare professional must address behavioral health conditions, such as depressive and anxiety symptoms associated with traumatic experiences, as well as alcohol and drug misuse. Recent community-based survey findings (N=256) indicate that 50 percent of refugees from Burma report enough symptoms to warrant further clinical assessment for post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), and over 20 percent suffer from depression and anxiety-related symptoms. Nine percent have been positively screened for alcohol-related problems.

With limited English proficiency and low health literacy, providing and keeping Burmese refugees engaged in Western treatments is a monumental challenge. In particular, the Burmese community is known for its complex ethnic and linguistic diversities. This diversity poses a series of challenges when seeking to maintain or improve health and well-being in an unfamiliar post-arrival context. Therefore, healthcare professionals must explore ways to respond to behavioral health needs that are tailored to cultural and linguistic differences.