Asylum seeker trauma in a student-run clinic: reducing barriers to forensic medical evaluations
Keywords:Asylum seekers, Forensic medical evaluations, Health and human rights, Student-run asylum clinics, Complex trauma
Introduction: The number of forcibly displaced immigrants entering the United States continues to rapidly increase. Movement from Latin America across the southern border of the United States was the third-largest migration worldwide in 2017; the U.S. now serves as home to one-fifth of the world’s migrants (Budiman, 2020; Leyva-Flores et al., 2019). Reporting on the first two years of clients receiving forensic medical evaluations (FMEs) conducted by clinicians trained at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), this descriptive study demonstrates the multiple layers and types of trauma in asylum seekers presenting to a student-run asylum clinic (SRAC) at an academic medical center.
Methods: A retrospective review of the first 102 asylum seekers presenting to a university-affiliated SRAC for forensic medical and psychological evaluations is summarized. Demographics, immigration history, medical and mental health histories, descriptions of extensive trauma and referral patterns are reported. Multivariate statistics were employed to investigate the relationship between past trauma and current mental health status.
Results: Clients reported extensive trauma histories, with an average of 4.4 different types of ill-treatment per person, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence. The current mental health burden was extensive with 86.9 percent of clients reporting symptoms of PTSD and/or depression. Clients were evaluated within a clinic structure that intentionally aligns with SAMHSA’s implementation domains of trauma-informed care using a continuous improvement model to reduce barriers to FMEs and promote longitudinal follow-up and referral access.
Discussion: This study demonstrates the profound trauma exposure reported by asylum seekers, as well as the adaptation of a SRAC to better respond to complex trauma through intentional structural and leadership decisions. The HRC experience provides a blueprint for other asylum clinics to implement systematic trauma-centered services.
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