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Mental Health and Psychosocial Needs of Refugees

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Europe is experiencing the largest movement of people since the Second World War. Inevitably, social workers and mental health practitioners, struggle to help the migrants cope with the trauma of displacement. It is a known fact that refugees often experience considerable mental distress. Many of them have faced oppression, war and torture in their country of origin and may still be experiencing various mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, and depression.

According to the UNHCR, a refugee is ‘a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’

I started to think most of these people are fleeing war, violence, and wonder what is going on in their heads. Even in the UK, many people end up in detention centres and similar places. The government is trying to reduce numbers. But this is in inhumane, even uncivilised.

According to Mind, restrictive policies on healthcare, education, accommodation, welfare support and employment are functioning to socially exclude and marginalise refugees and asylum-seekers, both exacerbating existing mental health problems and causing mental distress. Current Government policy is inherently contradictory.

The pressure of Home Office interviews places an enormous strain on individuals. For many, the experience of being questioned in a confined space by an authority figure so soon after interrogation and even torture experienced in the country they fled inspires panic and in some cases emotional paralysis, often causing further stress and anxiety.

The most common mental health diagnoses associated with refugee populations include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, generalised anxiety, panic attacks, adjustment disorder, and somatisation. The incidence of diagnoses varies with different populations and their experiences.

Sadly, health and local authorities are under pressure to manage budgets, as everything comes down to money in the end. So many refugees end up in situations where they may not have any access to public funds. They are dependent on others. Many don’t speak English, they are scared to say something and often suffer in silence, resulting in further stress.

The need for appropriate services should be a priority, however this a real lottery. The lack of qualified counsellors who may speak the language of the refugee is like gold dust. Many refugees don’t want to talk or relive the trauma. Women won’t talk about sexual harassment, abuse or violence because of honour and the stigma of shame.

We have to recognise that many of the refugees arriving in Europe, the family need more than food and shelter. They require access to mental health services. Many refugees suffering from serious psychological problems, treatment often has to wait. Sadly, governments are trying to deal with people who have trauma is about stabilisation first. The priority is food, shelter and moving them out of centres; many are given antidepressants. I would say, medication isn’t the answer; refugees require access to services.

We can’t ignore that some refugees may also have physical health needs as well as mental health problems. Many professional don’t recognise that some refugees may be suffering from sleep and mood disorders, or depression and more serious issues like psychosis, some of the interpreters don’t understand what is mental health, they are often focusing on basic needs such as food, shelter, and welfare that they don’t even look at the person’s mental health problems.

It is a public-health tragedy – and it’s a scandal that it is not recognised as such, as a physical epidemic would be, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the impact of mental health problems with the refugees

Just over 21 million people, or 0.3% of the world’s population, are refugees right now. But instead of showing true leadership and protecting refugees, most countries are slamming their doors shut. You can find more information about these here.


Image credit: Freepik

Mandy Sanghera is an international human rights activist  who has spent years supporting victims and survivors of honour-based violence and harmful practices, cultural abuse, FGM, forced marriage, and faith-based abuse.

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