Suicide in migrant shelter points to lack of mental health services


The recent suicide of a Colombian migrant at a Queens homeless shelter struck a chord with Maria, a migrant herself dealing with emotional trauma. Maria had been in the United States for months, awaiting the results of her interview for political asylum status, when her thoughts clouded over.

Anxious thoughts — of what she left behind in Venezuela, of the prospect of being sent home to languish in jail for her environmental activism — raced through her head again and again. Maria didn’t sleep for three days before landing in the emergency room.

“I had to leave my family, my business, my home, my stability, my life. I had to face the challenge of being an immigrant in a new country, with a new language and without a job,” said Maria, 37, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be shared for fear of be punished by the Venezuelan government.

“…People said, the American dream. But look how it becomes a nightmare.

As hundreds of migrants stream into New York every day, a new problem is glaringly emerging. Many have fled danger and devastation in their homelands to seek a better future. They faced crime and hunger along the way. Thrown into a city unprepared to welcome them, and often without connections, jobs, housing, insurance or a common language, migrants are susceptible to mental illness.

But help is hard to come by because available mental health resources are deeply inadequate, advocates and experts say. Treatment pathways aren’t clear to anyone — let alone someone dealing with the fallout of a traumatic trip and the harsh realities in New York City — said George Ramos, an immigration assessment therapist for migrants seeking various immigration statuses.

With mental health infrastructure already understaffed, wait times for counseling appointments are often more than three months — and can be longer without insurance, Ramos said.

“When there are no good services, it usually leads to more acute reactions,” such as suicide, he said.

The problem reached a breaking point last week. A Colombian migrant, Leidy Paola Martinez Villalobos, died by suicide, according to Julie Bolcer, spokeswoman for the city medical examiner’s office. Martinez Villalobos used a cord to hang himself in the bathroom of a shelter in Hollis, Queens on September 18. Friends of the 32-year-old mother told The News she had been in New York for four months and was battling depression after being separated from her husband at the border.

She was crying every day and the weekly visits from the social workers at the shelter were not helping her.

Advocates and experts say the more than 10,000 migrants who arrived in the city and were cycled through the shelter system are also at risk. If migrants already feel hopelessness, fear and hopelessness, adding to the poverty, uncertainty and poor living conditions can compound their hardship and make their despair deadly.

“You can hear it in their voices,” said Sergio Tupac Uzurin, a volunteer with the NYC ICE Watch self-help group. “…Imagine having so many needs at once. And it feels like they’re not being listened to. These are very capable people who have made this arduous journey, and are here and want to make a living. And they’ I’m just being herded like cattle by both parties, Republicans and Democrats.

When arriving in New York, migrants can obtain services from nonprofits and community organizations, but these can be difficult to access. They can apply for public assistance and medical insurance, as well as work permits, but these processes are stalled due to understaffing and an overwhelming number of applicants.

The city also opened a resource center last week, which hosts teams of mental health professionals from the Department of Health who conduct assessments, provide emotional support and counseling and refer to a case management team on square.

“I encourage all asylum seekers who need mental health support to use these services, and anyone in our city struggling with anxiety, depression or mental health issues of any kind. either call 888-NYC-WELL,” Mayor Adams said.

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But twice the voice mail system on this line said all Spanish-speaking professionals were busy. Calls were redirected from Spanish-language services to English-language services.

More mental health support when migrants arrive would help, said Dana Alonzo, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service and founder of the suicide prevention research program. “We know this is a particularly vulnerable time, but we’re not doing anything to connect individuals to the support they need during this time so they don’t become at risk,” Alonzo said.

Inside the family shelter in Hollis, Queens where Paula took her own life.

Housing is a key part of mental health, Uzurin said, and conditions in family shelters don’t help.

“There’s no more surefire way for mental health issues to turn deadly than if people don’t have stable housing,” Uzurin said. “We hear, including from staff, that women in family shelters are not even allowed to talk to each other. They are isolated, as if they were prisons.

“Initially, we had these reports that women and family shelters were better than single men’s shelters. What we hear is that some of these women’s shelters are isolated like that. They isolate residents, which can only exacerbate mental health issues and general despair.

After her depression, Maria, who worked as a psychologist in Venezuela, knew she needed more help. She overcame her mental health issues, has since been granted asylum and works as an Uber Eats driver. Now she uses her own experience, as well as her training, to help others. She volunteers at an asylum seeker support group, helping others through the challenges of living in the United States.

“It’s about putting yourself in a place of thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is hard,'” she said. “And you’re not alone. This is why it is important to seek help.


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