Communications Specialist, Iowa JPEC

On her second day of work at Lutheran Services of Iowa in 2016, Alyssa Clayden fulfilled a request that changed her life. In turn, it improved the lives of thousands of refugees and immigrants in the state.

“I met someone who said we really need people to work with our refugee and immigrant population,” Clayden said. “I was like, oh, I can.”

In 2019, Clayden created ABC’d Therapy & Consulting because of a gap in mental health services for refugees and immigrants in Iowa. The company provides health care services and consults with businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies to increase the visibility of refugee and immigrant mental health needs.

“The most incredible component for me has been the willingness and trust the immigrant/refugee communities have put into me,” Clayden said. “The work I do is not straightforward, easy, or simple.”

Clayden is a native of Murray, Iowa. She is pursuing a PhD in social work with a concentration in public health from the University of Iowa with an expected graduation date of May 2022.

Working with refugees and immigrants has been Clayden’s desired field since she started traveling overseas more than 20 years ago. Once word traveled around the state about the services Clayden was providing, she said “it exploded, and an incredible number of referrals started rolling in.” Few clients call Clayden directly, primarily because of a language barrier. Instead, she receives referrals from mainstream agencies and primary care physicians.

“A lot of my work is on the ground,” Clayden said. “My job is to go out and make sure they know we exist and build their confidence in us.”

The motivation for ABC’d was to serve more people in need, bridging gaps in insurance and at-home services and to identify more people who needed support. The business acknowledges the difficulties refugees and immigrants face in the United States and works with the client, their family, and community to make mental health and health services easy to understand and access.

Clayden, who considers herself a mental health therapist who relies on a social work background, spent a large part of her life overseas, beginning in support work and community education about HIV/AIDS. She was primarily based in Australia, mainland China, and Tanzania with periods in Rwanda, Scotland, and Thailand.

“Displaced populations that were most heavily impacted by HIV/AIDS were also more likely to be impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault,” Clayden said. “Over the years as I moved to different places, I found what a lot of people needed were bases for processing whatever mental health needs that were coming up.”

Clayden earned a mental health licensure so she could become a therapist. When someone shows up with a need, Clayden is available. Her flexibility sets ABC’d apart from other agencies: for example, she enters homes when those with anxiety or depression can’t leave their homes; since there are rules with insurance covering (or not covering) certain aspects of mental health, Clayden provides pro-bono services to many clients.

ABC’d had a physical office in Windsor Heights, but it was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since many of the people who seek ABC’d live in rural areas, Clayden has extended her in-person expertise across the state in Waterloo, Dubuque, Sioux City and Mason City.

“I can adapt and help build a connection with the idea of mental health support and most of the time connect them to somebody longer term who is closer,” Clayden said.

Clayden is also accommodating with her “office” hours. She has two support groups that start at 4 a.m. and last two hours. Many refugees and immigrants work more than one job, have children to care for, or work in a factory or the meat packing industry. That makes receiving treatment during conventional working hours impossible.

The next step for ABC’d is to partner with psychiatrists in hopes of streamlining the health care process. Clayden also hopes to involve more refugees and immigrants in mental health, health advocacy, and support.

“I would like to have a program up and running that helps funnel people from refugee/immigrant communities to be able to move into the mental health field, to be the therapist, to be interpreters with mental health expertise,” Clayden said. “That would lead to a lot broader representation in Iowa.”

Clayden is the lone therapist at ABC’d, but she employs interpreters and case management support. It has evolved into a labor of love and learning.

“I learn so much all the time and have seen the amount of growth they have allowed me to make,” Clayden said. “It has been great to have the communities in Iowa so engaged, supportive and willing to make that investment.”

Clayden has received a Student Startup of the Year Award in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors. The University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center will recognize her Oct. 8 in Hancher Auditorium.