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What to do about migrants' mental health

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The plight of refugees and migrants is rarely off our screens these days, even in this, Refugee Week. 

Between the arrival in Spain of a migrant ship turned away from Italy, and the furore surrounding US immigration policies, it is impossible not to consider the effects of migration upon the individual.


However, perhaps in our focus upon the living standards of those in the Calais ‘jungle’ and the dangers for those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean, we overlook another issue: their mental health.

The Mental Health Foundation suggests that asylum seekers are five times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population. This is the result of a combination of factors: the Foundation identifies both pre-migration factors, such as war, and post-migration factors such as poor housing, difficulties with asylum applications and separation from family as key issues.

This latter issue has come to the forefront in recent days in light of the U.S policy to separate children from their parents at the Mexican border. So far, 2,342 children, some only a few months old, have allegedly been taken away from their parents with little to no explanation as to when they will be returned. As I write, President Trump has announced that this policy is to be reversed, but for many, the damage is already done.

Writing in relation to the effect divorce has upon children, the Royal College of Psychiatrists identifies a range of emotions a child might experience when their parents split up, ranging from loss and fear, to anger and feelings of rejection. Having to move house, they suggest, could exacerbate these feelings further.

In the case of a migrant child, then, much of their security has already been removed, with the loss of their home, friends and wider family, and the uncertainty over where they are going. Coupled with the sudden separation from a parent, it is likely that this insecurity will only grow.

Furthermore, the impacts of such separation are far-ranging, potentially affecting these children into adolescence and adulthood. The American Academy of Paediatricians published a policy entitled Detention of Immigrant Children in 2017, in which it expressed concern over the future prospects of minors who are forcibly separated from their parents.

As well as possible developmental delays, the policy suggested that these juveniles often suffer from "posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other behavioural problems". Where the parents are also detained, the Academy suggests that their own mental health problems may lead to parenting issues even when the family are reunited: after all, it is difficult to be a parent if you’ve not been allowed to be one for some time, especially following the traumas of such detentions.

The main message, from the Academy and other organisations, is that this kind of separation has a detrimental impact on the whole family for the foreseeable future. A traumatic experience is made doubly-so for so-called ‘unaccompanied’ minors who, without their parents, have to face these issues by themselves.

So what can we do?

Dr Essam Daod, a child psychologist working in refugee camps, urges the need to intervene early in order to ‘reframe the trauma’ in his TED Talk released this week. He has founded Humanity Crew, which aims to provide mental health first responders for humanitarian missions. The charity is open to volunteers and help in spreading their message.

Closer to home, Mind is working to improve access to mental health support for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. Their 2017 manual Mental health commissioning with migrant communities offers guidance to service providers and medical professionals in their treatment of migrants. Their website is filled with ideas to aid the public in supporting these projects.

Refugee Week works in partnership with many humanitarian charities in order to raise awareness of the issues surrounding refugees and migrants. There are dozens of events up and down the country – there’s even time for you to arrange one of your own!

Refugee Week runs until Jun 24th. Find out how to get more involved here.


Lead image by Fibonacci Blue

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