by Ike Evans

margo johnson

Margo Johnson

On the Hogg Foundation website, there are currently six policy briefs that were each authored by a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin. What else do they have in common? All of the students were either Hogg Foundation graduate research assistants or recently completed an interdisciplinary graduate seminar, “Mental Health and Social Policy,” taught by the foundation’s own Dr. Lynda Frost, director of planning and programs. Though the briefs do not reflect official positions of the foundation, we are happy to share them in hopes that they will further inform policy discussions, decision making, and smart action on complex issues in mental health policy in Texas.

Over the coming weeks, we will be featuring Q&A interviews with the graduate students in this blog space. This first interview is with Margo Johnson, a master of social work candidate in the School of Social Work at UT Austin. She opens up about her work in the area of unaccompanied immigrant children and their mental health needs.

Tell us about yourself. At what point did you decide to pursue a MSSW, and what influenced that decision? I am a native of Tucson, Arizona.  I transplanted to Texas in 2011 to work at an emergency homeless shelter for immigrants and refugees called Casa Marianella. I had spent several years prior researching and working in different countries in Latin America, and decided to explore how I might be able to support the needs of immigrants living in the United States. I decided to pursue a MSSW at UT Austin as a result of my work at the shelter.  I realized that through a graduate education in social work I could build the necessary clinical skills, leadership capacity, and networks to continue a career challenging the deeper issues facing vulnerable populations.

Your brief is titled, Responding to the Unmet Trauma and Mental Health Needs of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children in Texas. What questions are you trying to answer with this work? What led to your taking a professional interest in this particular topic? I decided to write this brief because I saw a need for the conversation in Texas. I noticed that the trauma and mental health needs of these children were being lost in the larger rhetoric of border security, often accompanied by strong anti-immigrant sentiments.  I wanted to bring together the literature on the experience of forced child migration with what we know about childhood trauma and resilience.  I was also driven to write the brief due to the time sensitive nature of the topic and projections for unaccompanied child migration to continue in the future.  I believe that it is imperative that we proactively create systems that can support the mental health and trauma needs of the newest members of our country.

Are you interested in engaging in the policy process (local, state, federal) in other ways in addition to your academic work? Are there people or organizations you consider champions your issues? I am interested in bringing rigorous research and stories of human experience into the policy process to root legislative work in the real needs of our communities.  Related to the specific issue of the mental health and trauma needs of unaccompanied immigrant children, I believe that any organization that works with children or mental health should consider how to build support systems for this specific population.  The Immigrants Services Network of Austin is an example of a collaborative network that I have worked with to share these findings and champion the issue.

Are there any resources that you can recommend for those who might wish to learn more about the topic? Literature on the experiences and needs of unaccompanied immigrant children is still being written.  The United Nations and Conference of Catholic Bishops have both produced well-researched reports on the most recent trends.  The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is another resource for information of the impacts of childhood trauma and evidence-based interventions.

How do you plan on using what you learned while authoring your brief in your future work? What are those future aspirations? I want to continue to engage in cross-sector conversations about how to meet immigrant needs in Austin and Texas.  I will be completing graduate school in the next few months and re-entering the professional sphere, hopefully in an emerging leadership role in the non-profit, public, or socially conscious for-profit sectors. I am particularly interested in bringing both participatory research frameworks and social enterprise principles into my work with immigrants and other vulnerable populations.