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How three Philly groups are raising mental-health awareness in immigrant communities

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has made mental health in immigrant populations a more pressing issue as they face challenges of finding information about the coronavirus in their languages.

Karen Cervera and her partner conceptualized Let’s Talk Philly Conversation Circles, a space for immigrant millennials to learn English conversation skills and tell stories to break stereotypes about wellness.
Karen Cervera and her partner conceptualized Let’s Talk Philly Conversation Circles, a space for immigrant millennials to learn English conversation skills and tell stories to break stereotypes about wellness.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The mental-health needs of immigrants, who make up nearly 14% of Philadelphia’s population, are often centered on immigration, a stressful and sometimes traumatic ordeal. Yet many immigrants come from cultures where stigma around mental health makes them reluctant to talk about the emotional difficulties they face.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only aggravated an already difficult situation as immigrants seek out information about the coronavirus in their languages, cope with increased conflict between family members, and look for behavioral health resources that address their needs in a culturally sensitive way.

That’s why these three Philadelphia nonprofits have developed unique approaches to helping the city’s immigrant communities at a time of heightened uncertainty. Here’s what their work has looked like in the last year.

Chinese Immigrant Family Wellness Program

The Chinese Immigrant Family Wellness Program, a partnership between the Philadelphia Chinatown Downtown Corporation and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was launched in March right as the pandemic hit. The initiative was originally designed around in-person workshops aimed at the Chinese population’s understanding of wellness, said Esther Castillo, the program’s manager.

“When the lockdown happened in March, obviously all the plans had to be thrown out the window,” she said. “It was a chaotic month, after the planning we had done in January and February. But we started online workshops in April.”

Castillo and her team held weekly workshops over Zoom in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English to discuss how holistic wellness should involve both physical and emotional health. They also talked about how to manage conflict between family members and practice self-care. When the city was gripped by racial unrest in June, Castillo invited her friends who are race scholars to talk about what prejudice looks like.

“After that discussion about race, we tested the waters of talking about mental health and mental illness,” she said. “And we immediately went from 20 attendees to one. We had to pause, regroup, and think about what happened. Mental illness is still really stigmatized, so we went back to the word ‘wellness,’ which has been very useful and effective. It was a little bit like walking on eggshells.”

Castillo noticed that young people in the Chinese community were much more receptive than their elders to open discussions about mental health. In the fall, she put together a series of workshops for them, called the Wellness Leadership Program, that included discussions led by 12 mental-health professionals, 11 of whom were Asian. Throughout the program, the participants, ages 14 to 23, completed interviews with their parents about their immigration experiences to educate themselves, as well as begin the process of “regaining dignity” for those who had immigrated, said Castillo.

“I recognized that this program was very necessary for the Asian American community as a whole,” said Felicia Chen, a junior studying nursing at Penn who participated in the Wellness Leadership Program. “The program normalizes mental-health issues in immigrant families. There are things that make our trauma and our mental health special, and I found it very crucial to be given space to hold this culture.”

Parent workshops are held every second and fourth Tuesday in January, February, and March from 3 to 4 p.m. For more information, go to

Tabadul: Reflecting on our Experiences Through the Arts

Launched in September 2019, Tabadul incorporates art into the lives of Northeast High School students who are immigrants and refugees, said David A. Heayn-Menendez, director of public education at Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a nonprofit organization rooted in Arab arts and language. Through art, the students were given an outlet to express their feelings about immigration and their lives, he said.

Heayn-Menendez and his team also held two-hour sessions twice a week for the families of the students in the after-school program because they believed a multigenerational approach would be most effective. (They’ve since switched to Zoom.) The sessions combined ESL classes and art therapy over tea and cookies. The goal was to reduce stress for immigrants by giving them tools to navigate their new world, Heayn-Menendez said.

“Most, if not all, of our ESL teachers were Arabic teachers, so they had the capacity to speak and navigate Arab culture and language,” he said. “We would have workshops on issues like mental health, the census, and how to apply for jobs.”

When the team was forced to switch to virtual programming in the spring, it hosted Zoom workshops featuring experts from the Department of Public Health and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services to offer English and Arabic sessions about mental health and family relations during quarantine.

Like Castillo, Heayn-Menendez is careful about the language surrounding mental health. He also pointed out that privacy is especially important in the Muslim community. Many people don’t feel comfortable talking about what’s going on in their own family or their struggles, he said.

“If you were to say mental-health sessions, our participants would think it means like for people who are having a mental breakdown or psychiatric break in some ways,” he said. “There’s a lot of taboo and obstacles to that. With art therapy, we didn’t ask them to tear their hearts out and put them on display. We just asked them to write a poem or a letter to their country, which allowed them to share about themselves and practice language at the same time. That was one of the ways we got over the taboo and barriers.”

For more information, go to

Intercultural Wellness Program

The Intercultural Wellness Program was founded last February to give immigrants the skills to promote wellness in their communities, said Manuel Portillo, director of community engagement at the Welcoming Center, which partnered with the African Family Health Organization for the initiative. Twenty community members participated in a five-month training program. Sessions, which focused on specific wellness topics, strategies and coping mechanisms, were led by guest lecturers including mental-health providers.

“Given the demographic and social isolation that a lot of immigrants experience, we wanted to develop a program that supports them during this time,” Portillo said. “We also wanted to explore the meaning of wellness.”

Participant Yushan Chou said she wasn’t used to discussions about wellness in her home country of Taiwan.

“When I first joined the program, I learned different perspectives from other immigrants,” Chou said. “We all had different ideas about how we can improve ourselves and understand ourselves to better deal with pandemic issues. It helped me see myself a lot better, and gave me more things to reflect on. I liked that we could share our issues openly.”

During the program, Chou and her partner Karen Cervera conceptualized Let’s Talk Philly Conversation Circles, a space for immigrant millennials to learn English conversation skills and tell stories to break stereotypes about wellness. Their project is now a finalist in the Well City Challenge, a program that supports community-led ventures to address and improve millennial mental and physical health, organized by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and Independence Blue Cross.

“It helped us find a way to break the stigma,” said Cervera, who emigrated from Mexico. “I know and understand now that I’m not the only one going through this. There’s a lot of people that are going through the same situation as me. Even if we are coming from different countries, we still share so many things in common, and so many struggles in common.”

For more information, go to