Gangamma leads study, strengthens mental health services in local refugee community

Refugees face numerous psychosocial-cultural challenges that are sometimes heightened by language barriers. This is especially problematic given higher rates of complex trauma.

To help create culturally-informed practices of care, as well as fill a crucial gap in services to promote refugee health, Falk College at Syracuse University and The Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters (MAMI) will collaborate to develop a training module for interpreters and psychotherapists. They will work specifically with resettled refugees in Syracuse, New York, where nearly 11,000 new refugees have resettled between 2000 to 2014, according to CNY VITALS and the Central New York Community Foundation.

Primary investigator Rashmi Gangamma, PhD, LMFT, associate professor in Falk College’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, is leading a team with two doctoral students, Shaelise Tor and Giselle Ortiz, two refugee interpreters, and an interpreter trainer to conduct the study, “Development of a Collaborative Training Module for Interpreters and Practitioners of Psychotherapy.” Funded by the Central New York Community Foundation, this study provides a unique interpreter-practitioner training module where language interpreters from MAMI are trained alongside and in dialogue with psychotherapy students.

Existing modules usually train only interpreters with basic information about ethics and mental health terminology. Advanced skills in interpretation are often needed in psychotherapy where topics discussed may be emotionally charged, trigger interpreter’s own traumatic experiences, or when therapy includes more than one individual client at a time. The therapist who works with interpreters also has a responsibility to be culturally informed to provide effective care.

Falk College’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy operates the Couple and Family Therapy Center at Peck Hall, where students and faculty provide free clinical services to the community. Dr. Gangamma initiated a satellite clinic at the Bhutanese Community Center in Northside Syracuse where doctoral student Shaelise Tor has been providing free family therapy services weekly since May 2018. Here, a major challenge is access to interpreters trained in assisting in family therapy services. The therapists involved are learning the intricacies of working with interpreters and clients from different cultures on-site.

The investigators identified this need through their own work with the resettled refugee communities, conversations with community organizations and leaders, and literature research on training that confirmed there are very few models for training. The investigators have also learned from case managers working in refugee organizations such as Refugee and Immigrant Self Empowerment (RISE), a Syracuse-based advocacy organization, that these challenges are widespread and are a major barrier to providing adequate mental health care.

For more information, contact Anne Metzger-Wormuth in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at 315.443.3023 or email