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Immigrants load a bus outside Union Station in August 2022, when migrants from Venezuela were transported from Texas and dropped off in Chicago.

Immigrants load a bus outside Union Station in August 2022, when migrants from Venezuela were transported from Texas and dropped off in Chicago.

Anthony Vazquez

Death in shelter for migrants highlights mental health challenges asylum seekers could face

When suburban police officers arrived in late November at a temporary shelter for asylum seekers, a crowd gathered as Rona Rozo grabbed onto a van trying to hitch a ride.

Rozo, 30, was transported for a mental health evaluation, but two days later she was found dead inside the hotel room she had been temporarily staying at after fleeing from her native Venezuela. Her death was later ruled a suicide, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Just weeks earlier, Rozo had pursued a new beginning for herself and her 6-year-old daughter, said Nefer Rozo, her sister who with their brother sought refuge in Chicago this past fall.

Nefer Rozo said she tried to get her sister help as she saw her mental health deteriorating. She could see the anxiety growing in her sister’s eyes; her body trembled and she feared the government would take away her daughter.

“I told them she wasn’t well,” Nefer Rozo said in Spanish. “[My sister] would cry in front of other people, she would talk about her trauma. I didn’t know how to help her.”

Rona Rozo, 30, fled her native Venezuela in 2022 and sought refuge in Chicago.

Rona Rozo, 30, fled her native Venezuela in 2022 and sought refuge in Chicago.

More than a month after her sister’s death, Nefer Rozo questions why officials didn’t do more to get her sister urgent mental health services. She’s sought legal help to explore her options.

The death also highlights the perilous road hundreds of newly arrived immigrants face as they adjust to a new life after fleeing economic and political instability in their native countries. More than 5,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the Chicago area since August, and many of them have fled Venezuela.

Individuals affected by conflict and refugees have a 15% to 30% chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Some won’t develop PTSD but may suffer because of the uncertainty of their situation, the demoralization of having to leave their country or experience grief from afar, said Dr. Suzan Song, the director of global child and family mental health at Boston Children’s Hospital.

For others, the stressors from daily life in a new environment can be traumatic, she said. She recalls one example of a parent who was unfamiliar with the laws of the United States and feared their child could be taken away for not participating in Halloween activities.

In Chicago, volunteers who have worked with asylum seekers have noticed signs that the journey has taken a toll.

Some have cried and expressed feeling a sense of guilt for leaving behind relatives or children in their native countries, said Mary Schaaf, who has been helping the newly arrived immigrants through Refugee Community Connection. A North Side church has set up a weekly night for dinner and prayer as a way to also talk about what they’ve experienced, she said.

“They’ve been through hell and back,” Schaaf said. “Their stories have been harrowing. There is a lot that they have to process.”

Ana Gil Garcia, part of the Illinois Venezuelan Alliance, had three different families over her home for the holidays and recalled how some people are showing signs of depression. She said many can’t shake images from their journeys out of their minds.

“They just start crying,” Garcia said. “One of them told me, ‘I will never forgive myself for putting my daughter in the situation that we went through.’”

Song said a lot of healing can happen in community-based programs as a first step that can identify people who need a higher level of support such as individualized therapy.

She pointed out a community gardening program in California where participants got together to grow food, discuss nutrition and also talked about mental health.

Accessing mental health services can be challenging in particular for refugees because there could be a language barrier, lack of transportation and a mistrust of government agencies, she said. It’s why creating a sense of belonging in any type of space is important, Song said.

“So having them embedded in some sort of community where they feel a sense of belonging, a sense of hope, I think that’s the first start,” Song said.

In Illinois, the Coalition for Immigrant Mental Health has been working on trainings since December with shelter workers in the Chicago area so they can start facilitating cafe conversations where they can incorporate mental health topics.

Aimee Hilado, the chair of the coalition, said the conversations will focus on topics residents said they want to talk about, such as how to keep a job in the U.S., how to enroll children in public schools and family relationships. But the conversations will also be a way to get the individuals to start talking about their mental health.

“We know about the stressors if they bottle it up,” said Hilado, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. “That’s when we see folks isolate; you see kind of more acute needs. So all these kind of tiered-stepped efforts that we are doing is to minimize the risk of people really going into acute distress.”

Hilado said the coalition has a group of 10 volunteers — licensed mental health professionals — who are providing training to the shelter workers, but she said funding is needed in the long term. Many of the mental health professionals saw the need at the shelters and volunteered their time while others were able to get compensated through their full-time jobs.

“Funding has always been an issue in mental health,” Hilado said. “I think that you pay the costs in other ways. You will pay the cost in ER visits; you will pay the cost in folks not being able to hold down a job. And I think that if you really want to help these folks really integrate into our communities, this is one area that cannot be ignored.”

Illinois lawmakers recently approved $20 million to help Chicago provide care for the immigrants, though that was less than what Mayor Lori Lightfoot had sought. In a statement, the city said it was “using all available resources to meet this moment,” adding that funds were used to provide shelter, food, basic amenities and connection to other services.

The Illinois Department of Human Services in a statement said it was working to increase mental health services for new arrivals. That includes reaching out to colleges with social work programs to see how students can help provide support services. Some of the providers who are assigned to specific shelters are assigning staff members to provide mental health support, according to the state agency.

Rona Rozo was transported to a hospital by paramedics at least twice in late November, according to records from the Countryside Police Department. She wasn’t given any medication and instead was given a follow-up appointment that her sister never lived to attend, said Nefer Rozo, the woman’s sister.

Nefer Rozo said her sister started to show signs of being in crisis in early November, when, at one point, she began screaming that the government was going to take her daughter. They arrived in the United States around Aug. 24, but they were originally sent to New York. A private citizen paid for the family to travel to Chicago because they heard there were more job opportunities here.

She noticed her sister couldn’t sleep, but workers at the shelter only gave her melatonin pills that at that point didn’t help her. She thinks her sister was ignored and not given adequate assistance to get through a mental health crisis.

“How could they not help her or give her an earlier appointment,” Nefer Rozo said. “There were a lot of opportunities for them to realize something was wrong with my sister.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.