Supporting clients who face mental health challenges

May’s month-long focus on mental health awareness offers an opportunity to explore the particularly acute mental health challenges facing people seeking asylum. Asylum seekers have typically fled devastating situations like persecution in their countries of origin. The resulting fear of returning, or of the inability to return home, can cause lasting trauma. Crossing borders and facing border officials can provoke profound anxiety. Once in the United States, the pursuit of asylum can take years.  

Arriving in the Unites States, many asylum seekers do not have personal contacts or support groups to help them. Many do not speak English or other common languages and encounter difficulties navigating U.S. society. They face daunting tasks in accessing benefits and finding pro bono legal assistance, when available at all. They are left fundamentally alone to face the complexity of American society, government, and culture. This can be incredibly challenging for people with varied educational backgrounds and familiarity with technology.  

During the U.S. asylum process, asylum seekers are limited in the benefits that are available to them. After their asylum applications are filed, asylum seekers must wait 150 days to apply for an Employment Authorization Document, and those applications can take months to process. That means that asylum seekers cannot earn money legally for many months after arriving, even as they need basics such as food, rent, utilities, and clothing. The panic and anxiety of such limbo threatens the mental health of many people seeking new lives in this country.   

Getting help to find social services can be a challenge in itself. For example, Mr. A, an asylum seeker in California, a state with relatively generous benefits for asylum seekers, has a valid work authorization but suffered an injury at work and was let go. Mr. A filed a lawsuit against his former employer, but, as a disabled person with no income, he is now in debt. He applied for benefit programs like California’s food stamps program but was denied benefits because he did not fall within one of the acceptable eligibility categories. These circumstances have impacted Mr. A’s mental health: his despair and inability to get assistance has led him to feel suicidal.  

Human Rights First assists clients in identifying social service resources, referring clients to those resources and local service providers, and mentors clients applying for benefits programs. We run several assistance programs including our Client Emergency Fund (CEF), Uber credits, holiday art kit drive, and holiday gift drive. The CEF offers support in disasters clients face – their car breaks down, they are behind on rent, and other emergencies. One recipient of CEF funds is Ms. GH, a transgender client who suffered significant trauma due to her gender identity before seeking asylum. In the United States, she was targeted, mugged, and stabbed by a gang, compounding her trauma and exacerbating her mental health issues. Distrusting of strangers, Ms. GH did not want to leave her apartment even as her employment document needed renewal for several months, and she lost her job. Our CEF covered a month of her rent so she would not be evicted as she sought other benefits and assistance.  

Human Rights First also collaborates with two vital organizations that provide valuable assistance to clients who seek asylum: Miles4Migrants (M4M) and Family to Family (F2F).  

Many of our clients go for months and years separated from their families, causing them stress and depression. M4M uses donated frequent flyer miles, credit card points, travel vouchers, and cash to help our most vulnerable and destitute clients reunite with their loved ones. When Mr. E was reunified with his family, he shared this message with Human Rights First: “I am really wordless and I am grateful that my family is here. It has been your effort for this to happen. Thank you so much, and I am really grateful.”   

F2F matches families in economic hardship with sponsoring families who provide cash assistance of $50 to $100 a month to 31 of our most vulnerable clients and client families in New York and Southern California to put food on their tables. Mr. CV writes each month, “Thank you very much may God bless you”. 

Seeking asylum is a complicated, challenging, time-consuming process that can tax anyone’s mental health. Beyond reliving past trauma as part of that process, barriers to earning and to aid can impact the outlooks of people seeking asylum.  These hurdles can be as stressful to asylum seekers as the legal system that is stacked against them is.  

To help our clients who face such daunting challenges that can impact their mental health, we assist asylum seekers and link them with other providers as they navigate both legal and social landscapes in the United States.  To help us honor Mental Health Awareness Month, we hope you will consider contributing to our Client Emergency Fund.



  • Nicolas Moritz

Published on May 22, 2024


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